Let’s get aquaculture right

When you’re vacationing by the northern Atlantic, you expect cold, salty surf, coastlines bristling with glossy green fir trees, shorebirds galore, and—of course—plenty of freshly caught local seafood.

Here in Nova Scotia, the sea is a magnificent clear blue, the beaches are deserted and littered only by bladderwrack and long waxy strands of kelp, and the dense fir forests are carpeted with a deep cushiony layer of moss, except on the rocky seaward cliffs, where blueberries reign supreme.

It’s a paradisiacal landscape, so much so that’s hard to believe it when the oldtimers shake their heads sadly in response to questions about local fishing.

Time was when you just dropped a line in the bay and in half an hour you could pull out more than enough fish for dinner.

Time was when you could buy your haddock, halibut or cod fresh off the boats pulled up to the dock in Riverport or LaHave.

Not any more.

There is still a lobster industry here, but that’s about all the local seafood that’s doing well these days.

At the fish counter in the supermarket down in Bridgewater, you can find a few pathetically small local haddock filets alongside farmed salmon and stiff-looking tilapia of uncertain provenance.  A handful of dried-out clams and a few defrosted King crab legs completes the sad picture.

I was shocked, turning to the frozen fish case, to find that all the frozen haddock, cod and salmon filets, despite the jocular image of a Nova Scotia fisherman blazoned on their packaging, were stamped “Product of China.”

Were they farmed, processed and shipped all the way from China to Nova Scotia?

Or were they fished and processed on some huge Chinese trawler out on the Grand Banks, and sent over to Canadian shores from there?

Either way, it’s a depressing snapshot into the dismal state of the local fishery.

The Halifax Chronicle Herald ran a big front-page story the other day about the Nova Scotia provincial government’s recent $25 million subsidy of the up and coming aquaculture industry.

The plan is to expand salmon farming along the coast and the Digby side of the Bay of Fundy.

As the article made clear, the prospect is very much a mixed bag.  Yes, aquaculture will bring a few hundred fishing jobs back to these shores, and will make moderately  priced fish available to consumers.

But the environmental costs are potentially huge.  Salmon in small pens generate a tremendous amount of waste, which leads to outbreaks of bacteria, disease and pests like sea lice—all of which must be treated with fungicides, antibiotics or pesticides that easily get out into the open ocean.

The biggest local corporate salmon farmer in these parts, Cooke, admitted having to destroy several hundred thousand immature salmon just last month because of an outbreak of infectious salmon anemia.

The problem with aquaculture so far is that it’s being run on the same model as terrestrial factory farms: pack in the most animals at the lowest cost to maximize profits.  Never mind that the living conditions of the animals are atrocious, and they can only survive to maturity by way of heavy doses of drugs and chemical applications.

It seems to me that if we are able to create trawling nets that are miles long, we ought to be able to create aquaculture cages that are also big enough to provide healthy living conditions for the fish that inhabit them.

Or maybe it’s not that the cages have to be bigger, but that they have to be stocked with a lower volume of fish.

Given the depleted, collapsed state of wild fish stocks, it doesn’t make sense to totally reject the idea of aquaculture.

But let’s build this relatively new industry in a sustainable way, on a biodynamic model rather than an industrial one.

That way it will truly be win-win all around.

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