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illustration from Frank Magazine

“It’s criminal what Cooke’s have done…”

A few years ago, while working for a federal cabinet minister, I was dispatched to the South Shore in late winter for two days of meetings with my boss.

Our trip began in Shelburne and the minister’s scheduler worked diligently to find us rooms for the night that time of year. After finding most accommodations shuttered, she booked us in a bed and breakfast on the waterfront that was surprisingly open.

The innkeepers, retired Ontario bureaucrats, had moved east as a retirement adventure. They were pleasant yet curious about what had brought the minister to town.

“I hope it’s not to support those devils at the end of the harbour,” said one.

“It’s criminal what Cooke’s have done to the view from the waterfront,” said the other who gestured angrily to Cooke Aquaculture’s salmon pens barely visible through the heavy winter fog at the end of the harbour.

Think about that disdain for a moment. The population of Shelburne has decreased by a quarter in my lifetime. The town lost 420 people between the 2006 and 2011 censuses. Shelburne County lost over 1,000, and based on the 2011 numbers, the town has nearly 1,000 more seniors (over 65) than it does children under the age of 14.

These same troubling trendlines exist for small communities throughout our province. We shouldn’t need Ray Ivany to tell us this is a problem.

Much like the fallout around the province’s decision last year on natural gas exploration, Nova Scotia has a decision to make about aquaculture in the province.

As with hydraulic fracturing, the McNeil government inherited an expert panel on aquaculture commissioned by their NDP predecessors. I find blue-ribbon panels to be like a trusty nine-iron for politicians interested in chipping a controversial file down the fairway.

Similarly to the Wheeler report on shale gas, the Doelle-Lahey panel has placed before the province a path to industry expansion, but not an easy one. It calls for detailed scientific analysis and world-class research. It asks for meaningful consultations with communities, First Nations, traditional fishermen and the aquaculture industry.

It would be heavy lifting, but would offer a potential payoff of a modern legislative and regulatory framework. This could provide communities with comfort their coastlines are safe, while providing industry with the predictability they need to invest in our province with confidence.

Of course, all that work comes with the potential for lots of noise and controversy. While the report calls for the creation of green, yellow and red zones for aquaculture suitability, telling communities where they sit in that traffic light will be messy.

It is also clear there are well-organized, vocal groups in the province that would prefer the industry simply not exist. Doelle and Lahey reference these groups in the very beginning of their report. These folks are unlikely to accept even the most stringent of regulatory regimens and instead advocate for a permanent moratorium on finfish aquaculture.

Just like the fracking debate, these are existential questions for the province. Can we afford governments with horizons that do not exceed the next provincial election, that simply take a pass on tough files to save their political bacon?

As Frank McKenna said, “good governments do not allow mob rule.” If they continue to do so, our hollowed-out, small communities will offer little more than cheap retirement real estate for wealthy folks from away, with the money to buy themselves a nice view.

Connor Robinson is a former director of policy for the DFO minister

originally lublished in the Chronicle Herald

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