Nfld. & Labrador

Salmon advocates take N.L. to court for stricter assessment of aquaculture

Fisheries and wildlife advocates are challenging the province's decision to approve of a salmon hatchery project connected to Northern Harvest Sea Farms.

The case is scheduled to be heard through Thursday

2.6 million salmon have died in Northern Harvest Sea Farm cages. (Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC)

A group of fisheries and wildlife advocates were in a St. John's courtroom Wednesday asking for stricter environmental assessment of Newfoundland and Labrador's expanding aquaculture industry.

The applicants said the province's former environment minister acted unlawfully when he determined a proposed salmon hatchery project did not require further environmental assessment.

The proposed Indian Head hatchery in Stephenville would see more than 2 million salmon released into existing sea cages owned by Northern Harvest Sea Farms.

James Gunvaldsen Klaassen, of the environmental law group Ecojustice, argued in provincial Supreme Court that the minister's decision was invalid because he did not consider what happens after the newly hatched fish are released into the cages.

A procedural step has been missed here, and it's a very important one​​​​​​- James Gunvaldsen Klaassen, Ecojustice

Challenging what he called a loophole in regulation, Klaassen said an environmental assessment should factor in all activity associated with a project rather than just the new structures being proposed.

"A procedural step has been missed here, and it's a very important one," Klaassen said.

Avoiding environmental assessment 

Klaassen also argued that revisions to the proposed hatchery plan detailing where the smolt, or hatched salmon, would end up were made to avoid an environmental assessment.

Lawyer Suzanne Orsborn, representing the province, said the company was legally entitled to make such revisions.

Orsborn argued that the question that must be considered is whether the minister's decision was reasonable. She said increasing the number of fish in the sea cages that were already licensed does not necessarily justify an assessment of those facilities.

Orsborn disputed the premise that the two operations –  the hatchery and the existing offshore fish farms – are necessarily connected.

"It's not that the two together become one automatically," she said.

Regulation concerns

Aquaculture regulation in the province has been hotly debated this fall after 2.6 million salmon died in the same company's cages off Newfoundland's south coast.

The CEO of Mowi, which owns Northern Harvest Sea Farms, is expected in the province this week to meet the fisheries minister to discuss disclosure of information about the die-off.

Sarah McDonald, co-counsel with Klaassen, said in an interview that the case doesn't consider the most recent die-off because it had not yet occurred when former minister Andrew Parsons released the Indian Head hatchery project from assessment last year.

But she said the event, which occurred in some of the same cages where the Indian Head smolt would end up, speaks to the consequences of environmental reviews that exclude major elements of a proposed project.

Open net pens owned by Northern Harvest Sea Farms in the Coast of Bays-Fortune Bay area off Newfoundland's south coast. (Northern Harvest Sea Farms)

"Some of those issues could have been dealt with if a proper environmental assessment had been applied to those sea cages," McDonald said.

She said her clients are also concerned about the impact on fisheries and tourism if wild stocks are affected or another mass die-off occurs.

Klaassen and McDonald are representing the Salmonid Association of Eastern Newfoundland, the Freshwater-Alexander Bays Ecosystem Corporation, the Port Au Port Bay Fishery Committee, and individuals Alan Pickersgill, John Baird and Wayne Holloway.

The case is scheduled to be heard through Thursday.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now