Contraver-Sea: Why the Grieg Aquaculture Project in Placentia Bay is Such a Big Deal

This would be the largest aquaculture project in our province, maybe the country, so government's unchecked enthusiasm for another potentially ill-fated mega-project has people worried.

This is not another article blindly bashing aquaculture. The fact is, world-leading agencies on the state of food in the world are telling us that we must turn to the sea to feed our growing population. By 2050, we’ll need to double the amount of food we’re producing, and it’s just not feasible to do so on land.

Nor is land-based food farming, as we tend to do it, environmentally sustainable. The way Corporate Farms rear livestock right now rivals the oil industry as a leading cause of climate change. Farming fish for protein requires a smaller environmental footprint than farming cows — less area, less water, less C02, less lots of things. So aquaculture isn’t all bad; few things are. Aquaculture done on land, away from natural ecosystems, is particularly favoured.

The concern around Grieg’s proposed aquaculture project in Marystown and Placentia Bay is that it will be one of the largest salmon farming operations in Canada. So we should want it done right. That’s all. And, depending on who you talk you, there are, or there are not concerns it’ll be done right.

It’s important that folks who roll their eyes at environmental concerns understand what’s at stake here – we’re talking about jeopardizing the health of our wild fish, and the habitat that sustains it. From so many standpoints – economic, environmental, food security – we want to avoid jeopardizing our wild fish stocks and their habitats.

Also, our government is invested in this project, and aquaculture, like hydro-electric projects, can end up costing us money if things go wrong. A quick Google search will round you up dozens of examples of governments investing in shady aquaculture operations, only to see losses in the millions caused by the kinds of diseases and failures that plague fish farmed poorly.

Why Courts Have Intervened on This Project

Back in 2016, when the Liberal government approved what many considered to be an insufficient Environmental Impact Assessment (EIS) on the project, the Atlantic Salmon Federation took the decision to court. They did so on the grounds that the EIS just wasn’t good enough to prove nothing would go wrong. They did so on the grounds that a minister cannot greenlight a project with a subpar EIS. They did so because government was disregarding its own regulations to approve the mega-project, waving the Job Creation Flag to distract us. As we do in this province.

The judge sided with the Atlantic Salmon Federation, and declared that a proper, reassuring Environmental Impact Assessment would be a “duty owed to the people of the province.”

But our Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment took that judge’s decision back to court to fight it, stating that “more than 15 terms and conditions will ensure that development proceeds in an environmentally sustainable manner.” A few backs and forths later, the project going ahead.

How Real Are The Risks?

Outbreaks, particularly of the ISA Virus and sea lice, have and do happen in our province, resulting in mass culls of farmed fish and consumer wariness of eating farmed salmon. Couping fish up in a wild sea makes them easy prey for parasites. There is, however, increasingly tech-driven measures to prevent these things.

As for mass escapes of farmed fish into the wild, they happen often enough to worry about them. In August, for example, between 2 and 3 thousand fish escaped from a Cooke Aquaculture facility in NL.

When farmed fish escape their sea cages, it doesn’t just mean wasted dollars. Farmed salmon are a threat to wild populations. The salmon we farm here are not genetically related to our wild fish. Our wild fish have evolved over time to thrive in our cold, harsh Atlantic ocean. When escapees breed with wild fish, they water down our wild fishes’ ability to survive in the cold, harsh Atlantic.

It takes an inconceivable amount of time for fish to adapt to their environment, the way our wild fish have adapted to the specific temperatures, ph, seasonality, flow rates, and more of our waters. And they pass that DNA along to their offspring so they can thrive here too. Farmed salmon DNA waters those traits down, weakens them. Farmed salmon are also more aggressive and fearless, so they’re a nuisance for wild populations.

In late September, DFO confirmed that escapees from fish farms are positively harming wild populations of salmon. Take the great farmed fish escape of 20,000 fish in Hermitage Bay in 2013. We know that a good chunk of them got lucky with the locals. DFO has proven that in 18 of the 19 rivers they sampled, wild fish had farmed salmon DNA in them. “We weren’t surprised to find hybrids,” said biologist Brendan Wringe, “we were surprised to find as many hybrids as we did, and to find them as widely spread as we did.”

Of 1,700 fish sampled, 27% were hybrids or just straight-up farmed fish and their descendants. No one’s really talking about this, even though we know our wild salmon numbers are plummeting in many places. And no one’s talking about the fact that salmon farms don’t have to report “small escapes,” which means there’s conceivably a constant flow of farmed fish into wild waters.

The project wants to place the largest salmon farm we’ve ever had in an area where wild salmon populations are considered at risk. It is worth noting, in terms of inter-breeding concerns, that Grieg claim their fish will be sterile / unable to breed with wild salmon. But there are spokespeople for certain groups saying they can’t prove that claim. We the public are left wondering whom to trust.

People are also concerned about how all this infrastructure, activity, potential disease incubation, and fish farm feces can not affect the natural habitat. Grieg and the government counter by saying we needn’t worry. Unless you’ve read the tome that is the Environmental Impact Assessment, who knows. Do we trust government, who want to create jobs, money, and industry before the next election, or folks from the Angling community who likely have their own biases in opposing aquaculture?

What’s So Contentious About Grieg’s Environmental Impact Assessment?

It has raised eyebrows that Grieg was allotted three years to complete the EIS, but finished it in 2 months and 10 days. The Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF) reviewed the EIS, and declared the document deficient on the grounds that it fails to meet the basic terms of EIS guidelines.

“Grieg hasn’t conducted the basic research that was required,” said ASF President Bill Taylor. “The company has relied on secondary information which has already been declared insufficient by government staff and the provincial Supreme Court.”

The Atlantic Salmon Federation argues that in addition to a lack of study, the EIS contains unjustified and unreasonable conclusions. They say no field work was conducted by Grieg to determine the migratory routes, genetic structure, and abundance of wild salmon in Placentia Bay, despite this being a clear requirement of the EIS guidelines.

ASF appealed the Grieg NL project again in October of 2018, this time under the Environmental Protection Act. In late November, the provincial government released the project anyway, alleging the proposed project has undergone “a robust examination, including scrutiny by a federal-provincial environmental assessment committee.”

ASF has critiqued the conflict of interest that arises from the provincial government acting as regulator, decision-maker, and an investor in Grieg. The ASF also says that in addition to government investing public money into this project, “the memorandum of understanding between Grieg NL and Newfoundland and Labrador gives the company a monopoly on salmon aquaculture in Placentia Bay.”

ASF has critiqued the conflict of interest that arises from the provincial government acting as regulator, decision-maker, and an investor in Grieg.

You Can Oppose A Project & Not An Industry

Our Liberal Government is trying to double the amount of food we produce here by 2022. That’s great, we need that effort, we’ve all heard the stats like “we’d run out of perishable foods here in 2-3 days if the ferries were delayed.”

Government has committed to double local food production by 2022, largely through growing more veggies and growing more fish through aquaculture. To their credit, The Ball Government has made numerous positive commitments and policy amendments geared towards improving provincial agriculture, and the food system itself in our province. As for aquaculture, the plan is to boost annual farmed salmon and mussel production to 50,000 and 10,750 tonnes respectively.

In light of that commendable effort, it’s important to note you can oppose a project and not an industry. That’s what a lot of centred folks are trying to say about this Grieg project. Just, whoa: are we sure this is going to be okay, what’s the rush here? Leo White is one of the founders of the Newfoundland and Labrador Coalition for Aquaculture Reform (NL-CAR), and shares this sentiment. He has expressed concern at the lack of environmental concerns in all the talks of growing our aquaculture industry. “We are not anti-aquaculture,” he’s said. “Aquaculture has a place in Newfoundland and Labrador … we just think that it needs to have better regulation, and more input from the public, more transparency.”

Concerning the Grieg project, NL-CAR identified several concerns, like potential sea ice damage to cages, 17 of 20 cages being too close to known salmon rivers, and the effects of farmed salmon waste on the ecosystem. The Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment remains adamant Grieg will monitor everything (cages, water quality, etc), comply with public reporting, and that all the concerns around the project are overblown because the legal process has been above board.

Grieg’s Reputation Doesn’t Help

One of the red flags for many here, is that Grieg doesn’t come to Newfoundland with its reputation intact. Grieg is a Norwegian company whose own government has rejected recent proposals for not being modern and innovative enough.

Grieg has faced legal hot waters in Norway as well. A former manager has faced criminal charges for admittedly lying about sea lice counts, and Grieg was expelled from the Scottish Salmon Producers Organization in 2014 for bringing in smolts from Norway without quarantining them, which put wild salmon at risk of infectious diseases. Other Grieg projects have lost taxpayer dollars after governments welcomed them into their waters.

So yes, people are concerned. Not blindly, not because aquaculture itself is horrible — it really can be done right (particularly when done on land, away from wild waters, but hey, that costs more and we embrace capitalist society). The concern is that Grieg is proposing building the largest fish farm operation our province has ever seen, yet we don’t trust the name Grieg, we have concerns about the validity of the EIS, and we’re weirded out by our own government so eagerly investing in this project, all for a few moderate-waged jobs … that will vanish in a week if this project flops.

Grieg, understandably, is quite pleased with it all. In the publication IntraFish, a higher-up at Grieg said of the project in Placentia Bay, “Our company appreciates the government’s aggressive approach to cultivate investment in aquaculture.”

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