Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia takes no harm, no foul approach to fish farm lease violations

The Nova Scotia government is defending its decision to allow five Cooke Aquaculture open-net pen fish farms to expand outside their existing lease and licence boundaries.

Cooke Aquaculture has been accused of operating 5 fish farms outside the boundaries of approved leases

Nova Scotia says it's only allowing regular operations at the fish farms, not more cages or fish in the water. (Northern Harvest Sea Farms)

The Nova Scotia government is defending its decision to allow five Cooke Aquaculture open-net pen fish farms to expand outside their existing lease and licence boundaries.

A coalition of fish farming opponents wants the province to force Cooke subsidiary Kelly Cove Salmon into compliance at fish farms where the company has not yet received boundary expansions.

The Healthy Bays Network cites government inspection reports that gear and equipment are in place outside of the previously approved boundaries in violation of existing leases.

"Configuring their sites in this way may allow Kelly Cove Salmon to have more cages, and more fish, on each of their sites than the size of their lease and licence would otherwise permit," wrote lawyer Sarah McDonald of Ecojustice, an environmental law non-profit, on behalf of Healthy Bays. 

She sent the letter to the province on behalf of clients Protect Liverpool Bay, St. Mary's Bay Protectors, the Association for the Preservation of the Eastern Shore, the Atlantic Salmon Federation, and Brad Armstrong and Geoff LeBoutillier. Many are members of the Healthy Bay Network.

Expansion without permission?

The province, however, said it's only allowing "regular operations" at the fish farms — not more cages or fish in the water.

Cooke Aquaculture applied for boundary amendments to leases at four fish farms sites in 2016 and one in 2019.

The coalition said all five sites have been allowed to expand before receiving the required approval from the provincial aquaculture review board.

On Jan. 12, McDonald wrote to provincial Fisheries and Aquaculture Minister Keith Colwell and Environment Minister Gordon Wilson, demanding action on "this egregious conduct" and a response by March 12.

No 'material changes,' says N.S.

The province has not responded to McDonald's letter, but a spokesperson for the Fisheries Department sent CBC News a statement rejecting the insinuation that Cooke has more cages or fish in the water at the fish farms in question.

"The five Kelly Cove Salmon sites under review have been allowed to continue regular operations on their sites until the amendment process is complete, but have not been permitted to make material changes to their operations including increases in size or production," the statement said.

The coalition said there's no way to verify that claim since Nova Scotia refuses to release farm stocking and configuration data on the grounds it is confidential business information.

It has also taken issue with the fact Cooke Aquaculture has not held a required public meeting on three of the five fish farm expansion applications: Saddle Island, Brier Island and Victoria Beach.

Cooke Aquaculture has been operating in Nova Scotia for more than two decades. (Ariana Kelland/CBC)

"They may say no harm, no foul. We say harm and foul," coalition president Geoff LeBoutillier told CBC News.

"At the very least, the regulations require that there be public meetings, public information meetings, so that the people in the communities that are affected by these open-net pens have an opportunity to find out what's going on and have an opportunity to express their points of view."

The other two fish farms expansions are at Brier Island and Rattling Beach.

In her letter, McDonald said the province has effectively granted the company long-term interim approvals for the lease and licence expansions without "any statutory basis for doing so."

"Not only does this undermine the province's own regulatory scheme, with its commitments to increased public engagement and transparency, but it erodes public trust in the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture willingness to properly regulate the industry and subverts the rule of law," said the letter.

Cooke responds

Cooke Aquaculture said different provincial and federal regulatory agencies oversee its fish farms in Nova Scotia, where it has been operating for 23 years.

"Maintaining a clean environment is essential to raising salmon, and the coastal areas around our sites are as pristine today as they were when the farms was first established many years ago," Joel Richardson, a spokesperson for Cooke Aquaculture, said in a statement to CBC News.

Richardson, however, did not address the status of salmon farms where Cooke is seeking expanded boundaries. Instead, he pointed to the successful renewal of leases and licences of three of its other Nova Scotia fish farms.

He said that demonstrated Cooke's strong environmental performance and management practices.

"The renewal procedure includes the completion of performance reviews based on the technical and biological assessment of the farms and a public comment period," Richardson said in a statement.

"In these decisions, the scientists and regulators concluded that claims being made by individuals and groups about impacts to the environment were unproven."


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.