Nfld. & Labrador·Blog

Baker | Aquaculture is a risky racket ... but isn't everything?

With taxpayers on the hook for millions of dollars over Gray Aqua's troubles, Fisheries Broadcast host Jamie Baker says it's unreasonable to eliminate risk in the aquaculture industry.
Salmon pens in Butter Cove. (CBC)

I'll never forget the first time I laid eyes on a fish farm. It was an experimental cod grow out operation in Trinity Bay, and it was a polarizing thing to be sure.

The moratorium was still fresh on everyone's minds, and there was a real fear at the time that we might never see a codfish again, never mind eat one. And yet here was this small cod grow out right in the harbour, easily viewed with the naked eye from shore.

Word spread quickly about the big, thick looking cod growing in the pens.

Some fishermen were involved in the operation, and they saw it as the way of the future and were ready to dive headlong into it.

Other fishermen dismissed it at first sight. "Witchcraft," I heard one long-time fisherman call it at the time.

Now here we are a full 20 years later, and there's nary a farmed cod in sight. Despite our early enthusiasm, farming simply wasn't feasible. Even today, cod fetches only 50 cents a pound, and what's more, there seems to be increasing amounts of it in many bays around the province.

So cod farming seems little more than a distant memory despite its early promise.

And that brings us to today and the salmon aquaculture industry.

While cod farming disappeared, salmon aquaculture has grown considerably in our waters over the past decade or so. In 2012, there were 84 commercial salmonid sites in Newfoundland and Labrador, and production was around 16,000 tonnes and $99 million. It's becoming big business for many rural areas.

But like cod all those years ago, salmon farming comes with questions and challenges.

This week, we saw just how daunting those challenges can be with word that the Gray Aqua Group had sought bankruptcy protection.

It was hit hard by a couple of major cases of infectious salmon anemia (ISA) in farms on the south coast of Newfoundland. The company lost millions when huge amounts of fish had to be euthanized. Those losses, combined with debts to creditors reported to be upwards of $30-40 million, forced the company to make the move.

On the hook

Turns out the Newfoundland and Labrador taxpayer is on the hook for about $3.8 million in the form of an equity stake we had in the company.

The company is now going through a 30-day restructuring, after which we will know more about what will happen to the company, its assets, and the money we have invested.

The situation has prompted many to ask the question: Should we be investing taxpayer money in a risky business like aquaculture?

Hey, let's face it: $3.8 million is a lot of money. Some will point out that cash could buy a nice chunk of black top on the highway or extra piece of medical equipment. Maybe it's another doctor or some nurses where they are needed.

Hell, at worst it could fund another glossy tourism ad campaign.

A wary eye

It's understandable people would cast a wary glance in the wake of the past week's developments.

There's no doubt aquaculture investment comes with risk. But isn't that true of any business? There were folks who screeched blue murder against the taxpayer investments made in the offshore oil industry years ago, but look how that panned out. Yes, I understand that for every Hibernia there is also a Sprung Greenhouse. But again, that's the nature of business: there will always be risk.

In aquaculture, the risks are financial and environmental in nature. If we learned anything from the Gray situation it is that mitigating those risks is going to be crucial going forward.

Companies need to be able to withstand major fish losses. Taxpayer money needs to come with as much security as possible. The environmental framework for fish farming must not be good - it must be the best, and that includes monitoring, enforcement, research and regulation. No exceptions.

Wild fishermen are regulated and policed to death at every turn, and the aquaculture industry shouldn't get any free passes either.

If we want the business and the jobs associated with fish farming, it's imperative it be done right. You don't shoot a horse for having a broken shoe, but you do have to fix the shoe so it doesn't end up breaking a leg.

In other words, you can't eliminate risk. But you can manage it.