Posted January 9, 2015
Aquaculture represents one of the best opportunities for sustainable development in Nova Scotia. It can be a valuable source of jobs in rural communities.
It needs effective regulation that is open and transparent to communities, ensures acceptable impact on the coastal environment and other users, and nevertheless facilitates healthy growth in the sector.
The final report on aquaculture by Dalhousie professors Meinhard Doelle and William Lahey provides an excellent framework for achieving these goals.
The aquaculture industry has expressed its support for the direction of the recommendations. Some environmentalists would have preferred a ban on marine-based salmon farms, but they also feel that the process leading to the report was good and the proposed direction represents a big improvement. They are emphatic that they would like the recommendations implemented without exception.
Minister Keith Colwell of the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture says that the government is in broad agreement with the recommendations and accepts that the more robust proposed regulatory framework will need greater funding.
All this can lead to decisions about growing the economy while respecting the environment being made by knowledgeable people working with the needed information.
It does not always work that way.
Consider, for example, the important business of regulating what goes into a sewer. Triangle Petroleum has for several years been looking for a way to properly dispose of the wastewater left from its fracking operations in 2007 and 2008. Some of the water has been treated with a process called reverse osmosis which leaves the potential contaminants behind and brings the water to drinking quality standard. They proposed to then dispose of it through Amherst’s sewer system.
One would think that flushing drinking water down the toilet would not represent much of a risk to a municipal sewer system. But the citizens of Amherst, which would benefit to the tune of $500,000 under the proposal, will have none of it.
Mayor Rob Small, supported by knowledgeable experts, tried to explain the process at a town meeting seeking public input. The crowd, animated by a Facebook campaign replete with misinformation, voted almost unanimously against.
One attendee nicely summed up the crowd’s perspective: “I want to hear what they have to say, but there is not a thing they could tell me that would convince me otherwise.” This is just as illogical as it sounds.
Meanwhile, the environment is much worse off if the fluid is left untreated in holding ponds than if it is managed as proposed.
It is in this context that we should examine the Doelle-Lahey recommendations. The principal focus is on marine-based finfish, primarily salmon, which is the area of both greatest economic opportunity and potential opposition on environmental grounds.
The report is clear that the present regulatory process at the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture (DFA) is neither adequate, nor transparent, nor sufficiently engaged with communities where aquaculture is proposed. It recommends that all citizens have access to the application and relevant information at every stage of the approval process, and that they be invited to provide representations to DFA as part of that process.
That decision on each application should be based on compatibility with other uses of coastal resources, environmental sustainability, and socio-economic benefits to the community.
The DFA will be required to explain how its decisions address these licensing principles and any other issues raised by communities.
Not on the list of factors is a count of how many people demonstrate for or against the project at a town meeting. In other words the decision is ultimately to be based on a knowledgeable evaluation of the relevant facts.
Appeals would be possible. The report is unsure whether these should be to the Minister or to an Independent Aquaculture Review Board (with a final appeal to the provincial Supreme Court available in either case).
Appeals through an independent board are much to be much to be preferred. Appeals to the Minister could start a whole new round of political lobbying to undermine an otherwise well-constructed process.
For example the Minister of Energy, if allowed, would override the recent decision by the Utility and Review Board on electricity rates, even though that decision was supported by the facts, and by all representatives of customers at the hearing.
The general direction of the aquaculture report has been known since August. No new salmon farms can be developed until the new regulations are in place. It is disappointing that the Minister cannot confidently predict completion of those regulations before the end of 2015.
But at least we are pointed in the right direction.
Any good regulatory process for resource industries should insist on the right of citizens to provide their input, whether well-informed or willfully ignorant. But the process should then make and communicate a decision based solely on the relevant facts, and the policy framework recommended by Doelle and Lahey.
Done well, this process can boost rural employment in aquaculture and set the example for development of other resource industries.