The Nova Scotia government says no new fish farm applications will be accepted until it completes a campaign promise to map which areas are best suited for aquaculture.

The moratorium doesn’t include a fourfold expansion already proposed by the industry.

The governing Progressive Conservatives promised during the 2021 provincial election campaign to implement a coastal classification system, which will rank areas off the shore of Nova Scotia as red, yellow or green, depending on how suitable they are for aquaculture. The system is a recommendation from the 2014 Doelle Lahey Report, which called for numerous changes in the aquaculture industry.

In a statement to Canada’s National Observer, the province’s Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture said new applications for aquaculture were halted “because we believe the system will ultimately make the application process more efficient and transparent.”

The classification system has a budget of around $4 million and will take approximately two more years. During the pause, applications will still be accepted for non-finfish aquaculture, such as shellfish and seaweed harvesting.

The government said the classification system will mean “more transparency for the public, better applications from industry and a faster review process.”

Simon Ryder-Burbidge, marine campaign co-ordinator with environmental charity Ecology Action Centre, said it makes sense to hold off on new proposals until the mapping process is complete. But allowing currently proposed sites to go forward doesn’t add up, he said.

Ryder-Burbidge is concerned about the expansion of open-net pen salmon aquaculture currently proposed on the South Shore near Liverpool and on the Bay of Fundy in Digby. Opponents worry interbreeding between farmed salmon and wild fish and the spread of sea lice will further decimate an already vulnerable population, and that pollution from the farms will impact coastal communities and local ecosystems.

Greenlighting an area for fish farms is a problem in itself, he explained, but so is the lack of information available about how the government will decide what areas are fit for the industry. Before the maps are finalized, there should be an opportunity for public consultation and feedback, he said. The department did not answer specific questions about what factors it is considering when deciding how to classify coastal areas.

Nova Scotia says no new fish farm applications will be accepted until it completes a campaign promise mapping what areas are best suited for aquaculture, but the pause doesn’t include a fourfold expansion already proposed by industry.

At the same time, the province’s Aquaculture Regulatory Review continues. On March 17, a report containing a review and recommendations for the industry was released. It outlines feedback from the public and stakeholders, noting some respondents said there is “a lack of transparency in the decision-making processes.”

The review is separate from the coastal classification system, an approach Ryder-Burbidge said seems disjointed.

Cooke Aquaculture, whose Liverpool proposal currently before the government will not be affected by the pause, said the province should “move forward with aquaculture development” as seen in neighbouring provinces, such as Newfoundland and Labrador.

Cooke has 400 employees in the province, and the company notes the industry as a whole generates $2 billion in annual revenue in the Atlantic provinces. The company stresses that salmon farming is climate-friendly and notes it funds projects to help restore the wild population.

“There has been very modest aquaculture growth in Nova Scotia for several years, yet the demand from families for fresh, nutritious, affordable food has risen dramatically,” read a release.

“In our view, there are only a handful of Nova Scotia locations with marine conditions suitable for finfish farming, so expansion of sites will be reasonable and adhere to the strict Aquaculture Regulations and Environmental Monitoring Program Framework.”

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"The moratorium doesn’t include a fourfold expansion already proposed by the industry."

Presumably that means a 4-fold expansion is already going forward? Some moratorium, that!