Nova Scotia

Cooke Aquaculture gets improved sustainability rating, but groups dispute findings

Cooke Aquaculture salmon farms in Nova Scotia received an upgraded sustainability rating in an international assessment, but three environmental groups are wary of the findings.

Improved 'yellow light' assessment for Nova Scotia salmon farms has environmentalists seeing red

Aerial footage of a fish farm in Bayswater, N.S.
Aerial footage of a fish farm in Bayswater, N.S. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Cooke Aquaculture salmon farms in Nova Scotia received an upgraded sustainability rating in an international assessment, but three environmental groups are wary of the findings.

California-based Seafood Watch said it's recognizing reduced use of pesticides, low levels of sea lice and few escapes in Nova Scotia over the past five years, especially when compared to other provinces.

The assessment was part of a Seafood Watch report released this week evaluating salmon farming production areas around the world.

In Nova Scotia and Maine, where Cooke Aquaculture is the lone operator, salmon farms were given a yellow light rating, indicating production is generally having a moderate impact to the ecosystem but can't be considered fully ecologically sustainable.

Seafood Watch said for consumers, the scoring means the salmon is recommended as a "good alternative."

From red to yellow

On the Atlantic coast of North America, Seafood Watch scored Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick as red (avoid), meaning it believes the salmon farms are having significant impacts on the environment.

"Those were kind of the major impact areas that separated out Nova Scotia and Maine from Newfoundland and New Brunswick," said Taylor Voorhees, global aquaculture initiatives manager for the Seafood Watch program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.

Nova Scotia fish farms were rated red in the last assessment in 2016.

Voorhees said fish farms across the country need to do more work to achieve a green rating, "which is our ultimate bar of environmental sustainability."

Taylor Voorhees is a global aquaculture initiatives manager for the Seafood Watch program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. (CBC)

A decline in the use of chemicals earned Cooke's Nova Scotia salmon farms its highest score — eight out of 10 — in the 10 criteria used to assess sustainability.

The report said there were no antimicrobial treatments in Nova Scotia in 2020 and no use of pesticides since 2016.

It said Nova Scotia salmon farms have reported 44 escaped fish in the past decade and sea lice levels are likely low.

Even so, it said the risk of escapes and diseases spreading to wild populations persists.

Assessment relied heavily on Cooke's data

Overall, Nova Scotia scored 4.96 out of 10.

The report also repeatedly noted the limited amount of data available in the region.

In fact, Seafood Watch had to rely heavily on data from Cooke.

For example, there is no mandatory public reporting on sea lice in Nova Scotia.

Voorhees said the company provided the results of 12,000 fish sampled in 2020 showing very low levels.

Since chemicals are not used to treat sea lice, "that gives us a little bit more confidence that the sea lice counts data that we're given accurately represent what's happening on the water."

Awkward results

For New Brunswick-based Cooke, the results are awkward. It is not the only operator of salmon farms in New Brunswick and Newfoundland, but it remains the dominant player in both, said Voorhees.

Seafood Watch was critical of farms in both provinces for escapes and sea lice outbreaks. British Columbia also scored red.

"While the marine environments are different in New Brunswick and Newfoundland, we employ consistent rearing techniques and comparable equipment, and we continue to work towards those provinces receiving improved Seafood Watch ratings in the future as well," Cooke spokesperson Joel Richardson said in an emailed response.

Simon Ryder-Burbidge of the Ecology Action Centre says Seafood Watch is credible, but is critical of findings he disagrees with. (CBC)

Results in Nova Scotia reflect "our commitment to best aquaculture practices to transform the industry to become more sustainably minded," he said.

Simon Ryder-Burbidge of the Ecology Action Centre said Seafood Watch is credible, but is critical of findings he disagrees with.

"We appreciate the work that they do. They're a great organization," he said.

Why environment groups are wary

The Halifax NGO reviewed the scoring. It refused to support the improved result for Nova Scotia, but accepted the negative results for New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador.

"There's a lot more data to work with in those places," he said, noting public reporting of sea lice.

The Ecology Action Centre is one of three Canadian environmental groups dismissing Nova Scotia's rating for its lack of public information and reliance on industry data they cannot verify. The other groups are the David Suzuki Foundation and Living Ocean.

Ryder-Burbidge said monitoring for escaped farmed salmon is almost non-existent in Nova Scotia where the wild population is in more serious trouble.

He said if impacts are lower in Nova Scotia, it is because the scale of farming is smaller.

"With huge open net pen salmon farming expansion plans on the horizon for Nova Scotia, it's something that we should expect to see a lot more of if new salmon farms are approved going forward," he said.

More data would be beneficial

Taylor Voorhees said more data would definitely be beneficial to the assessment, but stands by the scoring.

Nova Scotia was rated 5.91 out of 10 for data availability, a yellow, the same as the other Atlantic provinces.

"We would agree that they can't be considered fully sustainable, but we are also very confident in the research that we've done and the ratings that we produced," he said.

The Nova Scotia Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture said the Seafood Watch report validates its efforts.

"We are encouraged by this independent recognition of our aquaculture industry's high standards. It shows that the province's efforts, with industry and stakeholders, to improve regulations and manage the industry have been working well," Fisheries and Aquaculture Minister Steve Craig said in a statement.


Paul Withers


Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.