Aquaculture North America

Nova Scotia premier faces backlash from ARB commentary

April 16, 2024
By Matt Jones

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston Photo: Government of Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia premier Tim Houston sparked controversy recently when he offered his opinion on Cooke Aquaculture’s proposed expansion in the Liverpool Bay, which will be the subject of an upcoming hearing by Nova Scotia’s independent Aquaculture Review Board (ARB).

“There’s certainly a lot of people in Liverpool that are concerned about this,” Houston told media during a February scrum. “I respect their concerns and have heard their concerns… While I think there’s incredible opportunities for aquaculture in this province, it’s my personal opinion that Liverpool Bay is not an appropriate place for that.”

While opponents of the project certainly rejoiced at having such high-ranking support, industry supporters and other observers have questioned whether it was appropriate for the provincial premier to make those comments and whether he was attempting to influence the independent review board.

The proposed expansion in Liverpool Bay would see Cooke subsidiary, Kelly Cove Salmon Ltd., open two new farms in the bay. Each site would contain 660,000 fish which would be a 370 percent increase in the number of salmon farmed in the region.


Premier Houston’s office did not respond to a request for an interview or comment.

Comments “concerning and disturbing”
One of the loudest voices criticizing the premier for those comments came from former Nova Scotia deputy minister of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Agriculture, Brian Rogers, who wrote an open letter to the premier describing his comments as “concerning and disturbing.”

“You state that the decision is not in your hands but your comments, to date, serve ONLY to undermine this independent review board and attempt to influence their decision,” wrote Rogers. 

“And premier, just what have you based the ‘not appropriate’ determination on – science or votes? You are the premier. If you don’t believe in and/or support the Aquaculture Review Board, then shut it down. Otherwise, let them do their job.”

Cyr Couturier, a faculty member of Memorial University’s Fisheries and Marine Institute, said that the premier’s comments could be perceived as trying to influence the decisions of the ARB.

“My view is that senior bureaucrats or politicians who have independent review boards, or whatever you want to call them, really shouldn’t comment on it when there’s a pending case to review,” said Couturier. “Publicly, they can make the decision at the end, when the review board makes a recommendation or not to the minister. But, really, while there’s a process ongoing? My view is they probably shouldn’t comment.”

“It’s basically political influence,” added Couturier. “Now, even if he dismisses the whole issue that he was just commenting as a private citizen, well you can’t do that when you’re in office. You can’t say ‘I’m a private citizen’ when you represent all the peoples of the province. You can’t have it both ways.” 

Rogers’ letter also cites Liverpool Bay as one of the few areas in Nova Scotia identified as suitable for aquaculture and describes the premier’s comments as caving to the “Not In My Back Yard” lobby. 

Regarding Liverpool Bay’s suitability, Cooke Aquaculture vice-president Public Relations Joel Richardson said it is reasonable to place farms in the area, so long as they adhere to the province’s Aquaculture Regulations and Environmental Monitoring Program Framework.

“Our application and evidence for Liverpool Bay sites remain before the ARB for hearing dates to be confirmed,” said Richardson. “At every step of the way, Kelly Cove Salmon Ltd. has complied with the site application process, and we welcome the opportunity to appear before the ARB.”

Other contentious decisions
While the ARB’s choices made in the process of their review could be a cause for consternation on both sides of the debate, to date the ARB’s decisions have been in support of industry.

The lead up to the review of the Cooke Liverpool Bay expansion saw several environmental activists frustrated not to be included more in the process. When the ARB named intervenors – parties to the hearing who can participate, including presenting evidence and cross-examining witnesses – several prominent environmental activists lamented that they were not chosen.

“I wish we could say that we were surprised, but given the behaviour of the ARB in the Rattling Beach hearing and other hearings, there’s no surprise or shock in the fact that they don’t want to hear from people who have expert knowledge of this or who may live nearby,” Douglas Frantz, author of “Salmon Wars: The Dark Underbelly of Our Favorite Fish” told CBC News in October 2023.

Ironically, however, it was the “nearby” part that was cited in refusing Frantz intervenor status – he does not live in the area and the ARB ruled he wouldn’t be substantially affected by the outcome of the hearings.

On the other hand, the makeup of the intervenors could likely cause some in the industry to have misgivings about the process. Among those granted intervenor status in the Liverpool Bay hearing are 22 commercial fishermen and a representative of the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs, who say that the project will interfere with fishing and access to waterways and could cause negative impacts on Mi’kmaw archeological sites. 

The Protect Liverpool Bay Association, who are directly opposed to open net pen fish farming, were granted intervenor status, as well as the Region of Queens Municipality, which has claimed that the Cooke expansion would negatively impact the area’s reputation for access to beaches.

Regardless of the process, however, the actual decisions rendered by the board have been in favour of industry. In November 2020, the ARB approved the application of Grand Pass Oysters Ltd. for new farms in Yarmouth. In February 2022, the ARB approved a boundary expansion for a Cooke Aquaculture farm near Digby (the Rattling Beach hearing that Frantz referred to). And just this past January, the ARB approved Town Point Consulting Inc.’s application for a suspended oyster farm in Antigonish Harbour. 

While opponents of those projects have had opportunities to participate in the review process, they have not prevented any of the projects from receiving ARB approval.

Further, some have criticized the scope of the process. In the Rattling Bay hearing one of the issues at hand was the fact that Cooke was seeking to expand a boundary that they long disregarded – the 20-cage salmon farm spilled out beyond the original boundary which would have only supported four cages. 

However, that boundary was never enforced by provincial officials and the ARB ruled in 2021 that questions regarding why the province allowed the farm to continue operation despite violating its lease conditions were beyond the scope of the ARB.

“There was a lot of insulation from scrutiny at the provincial level,” Simon Ryder-Burbidge of the Ecology Action Centre told CBC. “We saw the province sort of pushing to ensure that enforcement capacity and regulatory capacity in the past could not be challenged during the hearings.” 

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