Bob Swim has fished the waters of Port Mouton 51 years now, and his luck was pretty good until the mid 1990s.
That decade saw the arrival of open pen aquaculture to his home bay, a relatively inoffensive operation with three pens raising fin fish from spring until fall. The picture changed with the arrival of Cooke Aquaculture a few years later, purchasing and expanding this fish farm until Bob and his colleagues noticed a change.
The waters near this fish farm began to yield fewer and fewer lobster, and the traps they sent down often came back covered in manure, the accumulated filth of these captive fish collecting at the bottom of Port Mouton Bay.
“You needed to give this fish farm a wide berth,” said Bob, estimating a half mile of distance before you could expect to catch lobster. At one time, 10-11 boats set their traps inside Port Mouton Bay. Now there’s only one, the rest being driven into open ocean.
Generations of experience in these waters told fishermen like Bob that something was very wrong with this fish farm, but his word wasn’t enough to inspire action from the provincial or federal governments. They needed science to be taken serious; they needed numbers.
Inka Milewski is a quasi-retired marine biologist living in Miramichi, New Brunswick, who’s kept a close eye on the spread of open pen aquaculture in the Maritimes since its inception in the 1980s, not least through an 11 year study in Port Mouton Bay.
She said fishermen crying fowl on open pen aquaculture have been ignored with some routine in Atlantic Canada, forcing communities to enlist retired academics like herself to lend their claims credibility. In Port Mouton, she and her fellow scientists found exactly what Bob had observed.
Their paper, Sea-Cage Aquaculture Impacts Market and Berried Lobster Catches, published last year in the Marine Ecology Progress Series, tracked lobster catches in a 26 square kilometre area of Port Mouton Bay, and demonstrated an average reduction in market lobster catch of 42 per cent when this fish farm was active versus fallow. Separate studies in which Inka took part also demonstrated the impacts of this fish farm on eelgrass beds almost a kilometre away, and examined the excrement and waste food accumulating in Port Mouton Bay.
Bob’s observations on the water were thus given weight, and his observations on land left a lot to be desired. The pens of this fish farm were packed so tightly, he said, that ailment and cramped conditions were killing these fish in huge numbers. Pretty well every fall he’d watch truckloads of dead fish heading to the dump.
“What a state these fish were in,” he said. “They were all full of sores where they chaffed against each other; what a sin.”
Talk of expanding open pen aquaculture in Port Mouton Bay inspired Bob and other residents to establish the Friends of Port Mouton Bay, a group which organized boat parades in opposition to the proposed expansion and which brought their concerns to government, a demoralizing effort greeted with ineffectual runarounds.
Open pen aquaculture came to an end in Port Mouton in 2015, when winter temperatures dropped so low the farm’s fish were killed, the pens remaining fallow ever since. By this time Cooke Aquaculture no longer owned the operation, and the proposed expansion never went ahead. Slowly but surely, lobster have begun to reclaim the bay.
“I’d say the lobster are coming back,” said Bob. “I don’t think they’re back 100 per cent, but it’s better, and I know if these open pens are restocked, the lobster will disappear again.”
A Matter of Scale
Inka Milewski said the economic and environmental issues associated with open pen aquaculture relate directly to scale. As she explained it, when fish farms reach a certain size and density they are prone to a suite of issues, such as the piling of fish excrement and uneaten food under pens, causing the bloom of certain bacteria, the loss of dissolved oxygen and the burying of nearby lobster traps.
Also, when these fish are grown in high numbers and close proximity, the risk of disease increases dramatically. She points to the summer of 1996 when a viral outbreak devastated the industry in the Bay of Fundy, requiring significant government bailouts. Sea lice, a pest not uncommon in wild Atlantic salmon, tend to concentrate on captive salmon, creating lesions prone to infection and, in extreme cases, can eat the faces off their victims. Both of these health crises have necessitated the widespread use of antibiotics and pesticides in open pen aquaculture.
“The industry would say that all of these diseases are natural and I would agree, they’re natural,” said Inka. “However, what’s not natural is having 400,000 or a million fish in a very concentrated area. If one fish has a disease, it can spread very quickly.”
Inka said there is a great deal of concern surrounding wild salmon populations who are being out-competed by captive salmon escaped from damaged net pens. Those who harvest herring and Irish moss have likewise noticed a drop in catch and quality where these fish farms occur.
“As it’s currently practiced, open net pen aquaculture is really not a sustainable industry, because of all the problems associated with it – the disease problems, the environmental problems, the escape problems,” she said. “There doesn’t seem to be a solution to that except to move these operations onto land where you control everything.”
On The Horizon
Nova Scotia hosts around a dozen fish farms, a number kept artificially low by a moratorium imposed on new open pen aquaculture operations in 2013, which was lifted in 2016. Now two aquaculture giants in particular – Cooke Aquaculture and Cermaq (an subsidiary of Mitsubishi) are looking for space on Nova Scotia’s coastline.
Cooke Aquaculture already operates a fish farm in Liverpool Bay consisting of 14 pens, but has applied for an additional 46 pens, bringing their overall capacity to 1.8 million fish.
While the decision to approve this application ultimately rests with a provincial review panel, the Region of Queens Municipality has formally opposed this or any expansion on their coastline, a position made official in late April.
Council member Heather Kelly voted in favour of opposing the expansion. When it comes to open pen aquaculture her priority has always been balance, between the industry’s promoters and its critics, between economic development and her municipality’s natural beauty, and in the case of Liverpool Bay, between 14 pens and 60.
“Economic development is important, but how important is it really when you’re forsaking our…beautiful oceans?” she said. “That’s what’s most important to Nova Scotia. That’s why people move here. That’s why our population is starting to grow down here, because people want this quality of life.”
She said the municipality and its concerned citizens need more say in how their environment, in this case their coastline, will be used, and that the quality of life these natural assets provide must be taken into consideration before operations like those of Cooke Aquaculture can be greenlit. Council’s vote to oppose open pen aquaculture expansions on their shore included an order for staff to draft a report, outlining the council’s options for opposing these expansions more directly. While some citizens have spoken to Heather about removing the fish farm already established in Liverpool, she said the municipality must choose its battles.
“We need more of a say in what happens to our area,” she said. “We’re responsible for the quality of life here for our residents and in order to do that, we need to be able to at least ensure that we can count on our tourism, our environment.”
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes. This article was originally published with Rural Delivery Magazine.