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JIM VIBERT says Aquaculture Review Board hearing won’t engender trust

Nov 23, 2021

If we’re going to allow industries with sketchy environmental records to operate in Nova Scotia, shouldn’t we – or government regulators on our behalf – keep an eye on them to make sure they’re following the provincially prescribed rules?

That’s meant as a rhetorical question, but if you answered in the negative it’s likely best to stop reading right here.

For some considerable time, Nova Scotia governments have been bullish on aquaculture and favourably disposed to fish farms that use controversial open-net pens or cages. But we didn’t know until this week just how favourable their disposition is.

If you haven’t heard, an open-net salmon farm near Digby has operated for 17 years – from 2004 to today – at three times the size of its government-issued lease. It did so with the full knowledge and, at the least, the tacit approval of the government itself.

At a hearing this week in Yarmouth, before the province’s Aquaculture Review Board (ARB), the fish farm in question, operated by Kelly Cove Salmon Inc., aka Cooke Aquaculture, is seeking approval to expand its open-net salmon operation to the size that it’s been since 2004. Should that process seem backwards to you, take comfort that you are not alone.

And if, like me, the first thing you want to know is why and how the fish farm was permitted to flaunt provincial rules for 17 years, don’t apply for a seat on the ARB because they aren’t even a little bit curious.

It’s no surprise that Cooke and the province aren’t interested in rehashing the past. The company has been in contravention of its lease for almost two decades and the province didn’t care or call them on it.

But it’s a tad disconcerting that the ARB doesn’t see the company’s past infractions, or the provincial regulator’s complicity therein, as relevant to an application that effectively legitimizes those infractions 17 years after they began.

To the delight of Cooke and its provincial government allies, the board shut down lawyers from Ecojustice who wanted to ask the question on everyone’s mind – everyone, that is, except the company and the province, who know the answer, and the board, which seems more inclined to protect bureaucrats – and likely more than a few politicians – than get at the truth.

The ARB chair, Jean McKenna, said there’s nothing to be gained by calling evidence that she characterized as an attempt to criticize the enforcement branches of the Environment Department and the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture.

Granted, criticism is implied when you ask government types why they didn’t do their jobs, but the ARB was touted at its birth as key to the province’s more transparent and rigorous approach to regulating aquaculture.

Rather than bring transparency to the process, the ARB erected a barrier. If we can’t even find out why the government didn’t provide proper oversight – again, for 17 years – of a big open-net fish farm in Digby, can we have any confidence that it will do the job in the future?

Open-net pens or cages are considered high-risk aquaculture because, the ocean being the ocean, it moves stuff from in the pens outside into the natural aquatic environment.

That’s bad, according to the Columbia Climate School, for a bunch of good reasons that boil down to the damage the stuff in the pens – from antibiotics to pesticides – does to the surrounding ecosystem and all that lives there.

The aquaculture industry wants you to know that it has become a bastion of ecological probity, which doesn’t square with the fact that on the west coast open-net fish farms will be gone by 2025, or before, to protect aquatic ecosystems.

Aquaculture is big business. It’s worth more than $120 million a year to the provincial economy and it employs close to 1,000 of our fellow Nova Scotians, almost exclusively in rural, coastal communities. Don’t look any further for an explanation on why successive provincial governments have been bullish on fish farming.

But even the industry understands that it has no future without public trust.

What’s happening in Yarmouth this week won’t build trust. Indeed, for those Nova Scotians paying attention, it will have the opposite effect.

It was about 18 months ago that the Nova Scotia Supreme Court found the provincial government failed its legal obligation to protect vulnerable and endangered species.

For 17 years, the province looked the other way while an open-net fish farm grew – like the Grinch’s heart – three sizes too big.

Indigenous people, grandmothers, young Nova Scotians and other folks who are worried about the province and the planet mount the barricades to protect fragile ecosystems because they, and we, have years of experience with provincial governments that won’t.