A legal analysis released Thursday of Nova Scotia's new aquaculture regulations says the overhaul is a step forward but fails to deliver the openness and transparency needed to restore public confidence in fish farms.

"I don't think the regulations go far enough," said Aaron Ward, executive director of East Coast Environmental Law, a charitable organization that provides legal advice on environmental issues.

The group was a paid adviser on the so-called Doelle-Lahey report, which was an independent panel led by Dalhousie University law professors Bill Lahey and Meinhard Doelle.

The panel spent two years reviewing the way Nova Scotia leases, licenses and manages fish farms. Portions of its December 2014 report — which called for greater transparency — were incorporated in the McNeil government's new aquaculture regulations released in October.

The East Coast Environmental Law analysis calls the new regulations "a skeleton that follows the basic approach put forward by Doelle-Lahey, but lacks substance in key areas of planning, transparency and effectively addressing ministerial discretion."

Mandatory requirements

Ward says there is no mandatory requirement to release key information to the public like fish farm site inspection reports. He also says ministers are given too much discretion in declaring areas open for fish farms or "aquaculture development areas."

"An application in one of these areas is actually exempt from a more full regulatory process within the new regulations, with limited public participation," Ward tells CBC News.

"If you want to know why an aquaculture development area was designated by the minister, there is nothing in the regulations that mandates that members of the public know how that decision was made and based on what factors were considered."

Nova Scotia did not include the Doelle-Lahey recommendation to create "red zones" where fish farms would be prohibited because of environmental or compatibility concerns.

Fisheries Minister Keith Colwell says he has not read the legal analysis but defended the regulations and his ministerial discretion.

"I have the right to isolate any area I feel is not appropriate based on science," Colwell said, adding that the rules are some of the most stringent in any jurisdiction. He said he's committed to making fish farm inspection reports public at a news conference last month.

Practical improvements

The East Coast Law Analysis says there are improvements contained in the new regulations, which introduce third-party auditing, enhanced reporting requirements, mandatory farm management plans and mandatory public notice and public hearings for some applications.

"But they don't meet the standard that was met by the review panel and they don't meet the standard that we would argue was committed to by the government."  

With new regulations in place, Nova Scotia intends to lift a moratorium on new salmon farms early in 2016.

The moratorium was imposed in 2013. There are nine salmon farms operating now, led by the region's largest player, Cooke Aquaculture of New Brunswick. 

Ward says it will take time to find out how transparent the government is. One test, he says, is whether the government will require Freedom of Information requests to obtain public information or if it will be released automatically and posted on the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture website.

The Liberals point to what happened when there were large fish kills due to "superchill" in the frigid winter of 2015.

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