li-ns-cooke-aquaculture-3col

Cooke Aquaculture hopes to build or expand in Shelburen, Digby and Truro. (CBC)

The Nova Scotia government is lending $25 million to Cooke Aquaculture Inc. to expand its operations in Shelburne, Digby and Truro, it announced Thursday.

Premier Darrell Dexter made the announcement at the Shelburne Harbour Yacht Club. Of the $25 million, $16 million of the loan will bear interest, but the remaining $9 million will be forgivable through the Nova Scotia Jobs Fund.

New Brunswick-based Cooke Aquaculture plans to spend $150 million itself on the expansion, which is already underway. It plans to build a state-of-the-art fish processing plant in Shelburne — big enough to process 18 million kilograms of salmon per year.

The region is still reeling from the recent closure of the Bowater Mersey newsprint mill in Liverpool.

Aquaculture is controversial in the area, because lobster fishermen say it would pollute their fishing grounds, and environmentalists worry about disease and escaped fish that could harm the wild population.

Cooke wants to build a new fish hatchery in Digby and expand its feed production plant in Truro, making it the largest plant of its type in Atlantic Canada.

The company expects to create about 450 new jobs between the three projects.

Cooke Aquaculture has had to kill hundreds of thousands of salmon in recent months because of an outbreak of infectious salmon anemia in pens outside Shelburne Harbour.

Dexter said he understands there is opposition to salmon farms in western Nova Scotia but he's satisfied Cooke has the necessary procedures and technology in place to ensure its operations are environmentally sound.

"We have a great ocean resource here that's great for aquaculture development. What we want to be is a well managed, environmentally sustainable industry that co-exists with the existing fishery and, of course, is consistent with the proper management of our resource," he told CBC News.

"Half of the fish that is consumed globally come from fish farms. They are an industry that has been successful worldwide."

Nell Halse, vice-president of communications at Cooke Aquaculture, said the economic benefits will extend beyond employment with the company since it's expanding in rural areas of Nova Scotia that have been hard hit economically.

"This is a way … to bring people back instead of having them leave the area," Halse said.

"The jobs they create will attract all sorts of other business."

With files from The Canadian Press