A dispute continues over whether or not the provincial government's claim that aquaculture employs 1,000 people in Newfoundland and Labrador is accurate.

And the boast has one critic calling for an independent audit of the industry.

Liberal fisheries critic Jim Bennett recently filed an access to information request with the province to get some breakdowns of the aquaculture employment numbers.

He told CBC's Fisheries Broadcast that an independent review would be the best way to determine how accurate the government's numbers are with respect to direct, full-time employment in the industry.

"I think the provincial government has grossly overstated the number of people employed, and what I would like to see the minister do is provide a complete audit of the system independently," Bennett said.

"I think people are being really snowed. I don't know if the department even knows, if they are sort of wilfully blind, they close their eyes and they keep writing cheques — or if they actually know and they realize it's actually so bad they don't want to tell people."

Fisheries and Aquaculture Minister Keith Hutchings dismissed Bennett's claims, saying the employment numbers in the industry "have remained consistent over the past few years."

"Our numbers continue to verify that the aquaculture industry provides approximately 1,000 jobs, mostly in rural areas, and the industry now generates more than $180 million in production value," Hutchings said in a statement emailed to CBC.

Latest numbers

The Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture says the 2012-2013 numbers show that 467 people were directly employed in hatchery and grow-out activities. In 2012, officials said there were 268 workers employed at processing plants that held licences to process only aquaculture products.

Bennett says that number is lessened considerably given the fact that Gray Aquaculture's Hermitage plant is not in operation, with the company currently going through bankruptcy protection proceedings, and the fact that the Cooke operation in Harbour Breton — along with its 150 associated jobs — is currently out of the picture.

The province says Bennett is wrong on both counts.

Hutchings said the Hermitage plant has not been active in recent years so there was no loss of jobs there. He also said the Harbour Breton shutdown is expected to be temporary.

"With respect to the plant owned by Barry Group in Harbour Breton, the department is aware that Barry Group will no longer lease the facility to Cooke Aquaculture after January 31, but will engage in renovations and then lease to a new tenant that will continue processing related to the aquaculture industry," Hutchings stated.

"Cooke Aquaculture has advised they expect to access other processing opportunities to meet their processing needs in the region, and so there will be no loss of activity in that regard either."

Part-time work questioned

The province also notes there were 932 workers employed at processing plants that held multi-species licences in 2012-2013.

"These plants processed aquaculture products in addition to raw material from the wild harvest. For some of these plants, aquaculture activity comprises one quarter to one third of all production activity," Hutchings said in his statement.

Bennett says adding part-time aquaculture processing work muddies the numbers. He said an audit should look at the actual person hours of work the industry creates as opposed to just a head count of those who draw direct or partial employment from aquaculture.

"I'd like to see an independent audit of the number of people who are actually employed, full time and part time, the number of hours worked in the run of a year based on the investment that's going into it," he said. "The industry has great potential and it is creating some employment, but they need to absolutely magnify it because they have been writing cheques in the tens of millions of dollars on the provincial side, and on the federal side for compensation for (infectious salmon anemia) they are in the $30-odd-million."

In the meantime, Hutchings argues that one of the things not included in the raw employment numbers is the amount of spinoff economic activity that is being driven by aquaculture in addition to the direct employment and benefits.

"Businesses that supply equipment, transportation, packaging, nets, engines, boats and repairs etc., have all experienced increased activity as a result of the aquaculture industry," he said.

"Examples include Newfoundland Styro in Bishops Falls, which produces packaging; Fab-Tech Industries, which manufactures boats and equipment; and Newfoundland Aqua Services in St. Alban's, which builds nets and cages."