Nova Scotia

Cooke unveils ambitious fish farm expansion plans in Nova Scotia

Cooke Aquaculture's plans include the first new open-pen salmon farm in Nova Scotia since a moratorium, imposed in 2013, was lifted in 2016.

'We do have sustainable, environmentally friendly operations that will create long-serving jobs'

Cooke Aquaculture CEO Glenn Cooke outlines the company's future expansion plans, which include a salmon processing plant. (CBC)

Cooke Seafood is refloating its proposal to build a salmon processing plant in Nova Scotia, as the New Brunswick-based seafood farming giant moves to expand in a province where it has been treading water for years.

In a rare public appearance Thursday in Halifax, CEO Glenn Cooke outlined the company's plans, which include the first new open-pen salmon farm in Nova Scotia since a moratorium was imposed in 2013 and lifted three years later.

More farmed salmon

"Our goal is to produce more salmon in Nova Scotia, more seawater sites that we are applying for," Cooke told a Halifax Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

The expansion plan starts in Liverpool Bay, where the company has an existing operation.

A Cooke Aquaculture salmon pen. (Save Our Bays!/Facebook)

Already opponents are lining up to fight it, claiming more fish farms will harm the area, especially the lobster fishery.

Cooke: Critics are 'ill-informed'

Cooke dismisses the critics, saying salmon farms can coexist with the lobster fishery.

"I think a lot of the people who are opposing our industry today really are ill-informed or have information that is old and not real anymore," Cooke told CBC News after the speech.

"We do have sustainable, environmentally friendly operations that will create long-serving jobs in those communities."

Divers measure lobsters living underneath a New Brunswick salmon farm, part of an eight-year study on the impact of fish farming on the crustaceans. (Submitted by SIMCorp)

He points to a recent industry-funded, peer-reviewed study that examined lobsters living under a Grand Manan salmon farm for eight years. The study said there was no difference in the size, growth or abundance of lobsters at the farm and at a site a kilometre away from the fish farm.

"At what point do we get legitimate? At what point do people realize the science is there?"

Liverpool linchpin

An expansion in Liverpool Bay is also key to reviving its proposed salmon processing plant on the province's South Shore. It was put on hold after the NDP government imposed a moratorium on fish farming.

Cooke says the company needs to produce about 30 million pounds of salmon per year to proceed.

When announced in 2012, the plant, to be located in Shelburne, came with the promise to create several hundred jobs.

Cooke Aquaculture's salmon farm near Beach Meadows on Nova Scotia's South Shore. (Submitted by Brian Muldoon)

Cooke was unable to say how many more fish farms would be needed for a plant to become viable.

"We have to get to that volume of fish to do that. I don't have the exact numbers but we are on track and Liverpool will be a big plank in getting that plant built," Cooke said after the event.

Liberals open door to more fish farms

Whether or not a processing plant materializes, Cooke's expansion is responding to "open for business" signals sent by Nova Scotia's Liberal government, which rewrote the rules governing the creation of fish farms and lifted the moratorium.

Cooke was speaking to a friendly audience Thursday that included lawyers, accountants and consultants who welcome an aquaculture expansion.

Cooke pitched aquaculture as a potential saviour for the rural economy.

Dead fish are removed from a pen at the Coffin Island, Queens Co. fish farm, owned by Cooke Aquaculture. (Kat Milan)

"You know you're not going to get a General Motors or a Ford come build a big plant anywhere in rural Atlantic Canada. It's not going to happen. And you know tech goes so far and I think we all are thankful for those tech jobs. But for rural Atlantic Canada, there's not a lot of choice," he said.

The company directly employs 205 people in Nova Scotia, where it has a feed mill and operates fish farms from the outskirts of Halifax around to Digby.

From humble roots with 5,000 fish, Cooke Seafood has grown into a powerhouse operating in 10 countries with annual sales over $2 billion.

It bills itself as the world's largest, privately held, family-owned seafood company.