Aquaculture is shaping up to be one of the key election issues in Shelburne, where people have long made their living from the seas.

The hotly contested Queens-Shelburne riding is one of the new ridings created by the electoral boundary changes last year.

Incumbent New Democrat Sterling Belliveau — who was the Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture when the legislature was dissolved — is up against Benson Frail for the Liberals and Bruce Inglis for the Progressive Conservatives.

Last year, the NDP government approved $25 million to help New Brunswick-based Cooke Aquaculture expand in Shelburne and Digby counties and the feed mill in Truro. In return, the company said it would create more than 400 jobs in rural Nova Scotia.

Some fishermen told CBC News they worry the open-pen fish cages will hurt lobster stocks.

Ricky Hallett said he’s worried about what people can’t see from the shoreline.

“When you dump hundreds of tonnes of feed on an annual basis and the waste that is excreted from the fish that eat those pellets and excess feed that falls on the bottom — you just don't dump that much organic waste in a harbour that had none before and expect things to continue on as they were in the past,” he said.

“There has definitely got to be a change and there will be a change.”

Changing opinions

Fourteen years ago, Sherri Harris helped write an opinion letter in the Chronicle Herald that came down on the anti-aquaculture side of the debate.

Among other things, she wrote that studies showed Jordan Bay, near Shelburne, would be an unsuitable place for fish farming. She argued farm fishing would kill the seabed and hurt lobster and other fishing grounds.

But these days she feels differently.

Harris now runs a trucking company with her husband in Shelburne and transports feed for Cooke Aquaculture.

“Decisions need to be fact based. My interpretation of facts may be different than someone else's, but it needs to be science and fact based. Not just fears and half-truths,” she said.

“I’ve listened to different people, whether it be from Dal or other universities. I’ve spoken to independent divers who've been around the site. I’ve seen video of under the site. No 15, 16 feet of feces like I had been told when I was much younger than I am now.”

Others, like Jim Spencer who heads the local chamber of commerce, are in favour of the jobs the farmed salmon will bring.

“This would be a good resource to develop wealth for our community. If you look at the statistics of this industry it has surpassed the production of beef. It looks like it’s not a short term goal type thing. It’s going to be here for a while,” he said.

Spencer said the community needs help to save its schools and churches — institutions that make up a community.

In the spring, the NDP government struck a panel to report on ways to improve the rules surrounding aquaculture development.

The panel — headed by two environmental law experts from Dalhousie University, Bill Lahey and Meinhard Doelle — will not report back until after the election.