New Brunswick

Proposed Irving plea deal would put money into Irving-controlled salmon group

A plea deal awaiting approval by a Saint John judge would allow J.D. Irving Ltd. to pay part of its fine for pollution in the St. John River to an Atlantic salmon conservation company it controls.

James Irving of JDI is chair of CAST, a non-profit trying to bring back wild salmon

J.D. Irving Ltd. agreed to a joint recommendation which would see Irving Pulp and Paper Ltd. plead guilty to three charges related to 15 instances of effluent discharges from its Saint John pulp mill. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

A plea deal awaiting approval by a Saint John judge would allow J.D. Irving Ltd. to pay part of its fine for pollution in the St. John River to CAST, an Atlantic salmon conservation company it controls.

The Crown and lawyers for JDI are jointly recommending the plea deal, which would see Irving Pulp and Paper Ltd. plead guilty to three charges related to 15 instances of effluent discharges from its Saint John pulp mill. 

CAST, which stands for Collaboration for Atlantic Salmon Tomorrow, is a New Brunswick-registered company chaired by James Irving, the co-CEO of JDI, with Glenn Cooke of Cooke Aquaculture and Saint John businessman Brian Moore listed as fellow directors.

It just doesn't pass the sniff test for me.- Matthew Abbott, Fundy baykeeper

Under the terms of the proposed deal, $2.3 million would be paid by Irving to the federal Environmental Damages Fund and a further $1.1 million would be directed to CAST, which wants to restock the Miramichi River this fall with more than 1,000 wild salmon raised in a hatchery.

CAST's executive director, Andrew Willett, a JDI Woodlands manager, said it is a non-profit corporation. 

The proposal to direct the money to a Miramichi River project far away from the St. John River, where the pollution occurred, is galling to Fundy baykeeper Matthew Abbott.

Matthew Abbott, the Fundy baykeeper, said the fine arrangement is problematic. (CBC)

"It just doesn't pass the sniff test for me," Abbott said. "The proposal is that Irving would give $1.1 million through the courts to a project that Jim Irving himself chairs, as a deterrent for polluting the St. John River."

Non-profit challenges DFO

CAST is already mired in a very public dispute with scientists at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans over the Miramichi project.

The company took out a full page ad in Saturday's Telegraph-Journal urging readers to lobby the department's Moncton office, their members of Parliament and MLAs in favour of CAST's plans for the Miramichi River.

"We are witnessing the extinction of the Atlantic Salmon from the Miramichi River in slow motion as bureaucrats in the Moncton Office of the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) Gulf Region do little to address the issue facing the salmon," says the open letter.

"We don't need more study, more talk or more of the status-quo — we need immediate action — or it will soon be too late." 

In 2015, three-year-old wild Atlantic salmon smolt from the Miramichi were captured and raised in a hatchery.

CAST slow to consult First Nations

They were to be released into the river this fall in the same place they were originally captured in order to spawn, but the Fisheries Department is refusing to issue the necessary permit, arguing the release could weaken the wild fish population.

"Fisheries and Oceans Canada has a responsibility to consider the benefits of this type of scientific experiment along with the risks to wild Atlantic salmon populations and level of support from partners, including Indigenous communities who access these salmon populations for food," Frank Stanek, manager of media relations for the department, said in an email.

Eel Ground Chief George Ginnish said the CAST plan to place adult salmon in the river began two years before local First Nations along the Miramichi Valley were even consulted.

"We were brought into the project late and from our perspective, as a primary user of the resource in our traditional territory, to say it was an insult would be an understatement," Ginnish said. "You are talking about a food that has deep cultural significance."

Suggests leaving river alone

Ginnish said CAST's newspaper ad on Saturday did not reflect First Nations concerns raised in the past. The organization, he said, "hit the panic button hard."

"You know we've suggested if everyone feels that the salmon is truly at risk on this river, then shut the whole river down to everyone. Give it a couple of years to see what happens, let Mother Nature do the work. Not a scientific experiment on a system that still has a viable population."

CAST, an Atlantic salmon conservation, wants to restock the Miramichi River this fall. (Shutterstock)

CAST executive director Andrew Willett said the federal department had the responsibility to create a steering committee to include First Nations but failed to put it together. He said concerns raised by the department in scientific review have all been addressed.

"We agreed to all of the mitigation measures that were suggested in that report," said Willett. "We thought that we had met all the conditions that DFO had laid out for the science.

"We're very surprised that now they're saying that they still have concerns about the science."

Willett says early stages of the project - including capturing the salmon smolts - had the blessing of DFO.

Concerns about mingling

The Atlantic Salmon Federation, a major North American conservation group, also has serious concerns that re-introducing the hatchery fish could weaken the wild fish population overall.

Fish of the same age that have remained in the wild have already survived a 5,000-kilometre ocean journey before returning to the river system.

Eel Ground First Nation Chief George Ginnish said CAST should leave the river alone. (CBC)

Neville Crabbe, a federation spokesperson, said CAST does valuable work in the field of salmon conservation but the adult-stocking problem poses too many risks and should be reserved for river systems where wild salmon are either extinct or on the very brink.

"I would say that the broad consensus within the scientific community on this question would lean strongly against this type of an activity," said Crabbe. 

Both sides have supporters

Several partners are lined up with CAST, including the Miramichi Salmon Association, which has seen a $2 million upgrade of its South Esk hatchery to accommodate the larger adult fish, scientists with the Canadian Rivers Institute at the University of New Brunswick, and several lodge owners, fishing clubs and the river communities of Upper Miramichi, Blackville and Doaktown.

"We believe that the Miramichi salmon population is really in trouble. We believe that the numbers are going down at a rate that is not sustainable … salmon population recovery becomes very much more difficult when you go to your last legs," said Prof. Tommi Linnansaari, a CAST partner at UNB.

He said steps are being taken to ensure that strong adult fish are placed in the river and that they and their offspring are carefully monitored afterward to discover how the process can be improved.

He said the three-year-old smolts collected in the wild have already survived a difficult natural selection process.

"We're keeping the winners that nature has selected, and we're borrowing them from nature for a little bit so they don't go back to the ocean — because that's where currently the high mortality is happening — and as the fish mature, then we just put them back where they came from. Now we let the chips fall as they may."

Sees benefits for other rivers

In response to concerns about the proposal to direct Irving Pulp and Paper fine money to the Miramichi CAST project, JDI spokesperson, Mary Keith said the research will bring widespread benefits.

"My understanding of CAST is that their research work will deliver models of conservation that can be adapted to other rivers, including the St. John," she said. "ARIS technology, the database, cold water refugia, as well as smolt to adult supplementation are all examples of this.

"The intent is to transfer learnings from the Miramichi to other rivers in New Brunswick."

Judge David Walker is expected to issue a decision on the proposed plea deal on Nov. 5.


Connell Smith is a reporter with CBC in Saint John. He can be reached at 632-7726


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