The federal agency responsible for economic development in Atlantic Canada wrote off more than $138 million between 2004 and 2011, according to documents reviewed by CBC News Network's Power & Politics.

During that time period, the amount in annual loan defaults to the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) increased by about 50 per cent.

The numbers are contained in documents that track federal spending.

"We're not surprised. Anyone who was lending this money in the real world would be out of work," Gregory Thomas of the Canadian Taxpayer's Federation told CBC News.

mi-valcourt-acoa

Bernard Valcourt has appointed minister of state for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency in 2011. (ACOA/CNW)

While ACOA concedes that loans it makes can be high risk, spokesman Richard Gauthier disagrees with Thomas' assessment. Gauthier says the agency helps companies and organizations in Atlantic Canada succeed, and that relatively few companies default on their loans.

An analysis of federal spending data shows that on average, the agency writes off about eight per cent of the money it hands out in loans and grants.

"There's always risk with regional economic development. Now that said, the vast majority of clients that ACOA has, make their business loan repayment on schedule," Gauthier said.

According to figures Power & Politics obtained through Access to Information, the three largest loan defaults surpassed $2 million each.

Here's a look at ACOA's 10 largest loan write-offs for 2010-11:

Company name Total write-off
Diaphonics Inc.                        $2,725,211.58
VECTr Systems (Canada) Incorporated and VECTr Systems Inc.                         2,106,382.34
Baader-Canpolar Inc.                         2,007,583.02
Pack Océan Ltée et Fruits de Mer Océanis Ltée et Pack Nature SARL                            648,215.03
Thor Solutions Inc.                            520,810.18
SG5 Innovation Inc.                            493,263.54
VECTr Systems (Canada) Incorporated and VECTr Systems Inc.                            463,203.53
Ensemble Collaboration Corporation                            450,659.45
BIO-D ENERGIE INC.                            432,112.98
Northern Cod Ventures Limited                            353,971.16

Source: ACOA via Access to Information

Regional development has had its critics over the years. The CTF argues governments should be rid of ACOA and the other regional development agencies in Quebec, Ontario and Western Canada.

That view was shared by Stephen Harper when he was leader of the Canadian Alliance and argued that ACOA should be dismantled, before the Alliance merged with the Progressive Conservatives led by Peter MacKay. MacKay, who is from Nova Scotia, served as the minister responsible for ACOA from 2006 to 2008 in the Harper government.