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Aquaculture Industry May Be The Saving Grace For Nova Scotia’s Rural Communities

Cooke Aquaculture's salmon farm at Rattling Beach, NS. Image: Submitted

Like its neighbouring Atlantic Canadian provinces, nearly half of Nova Scotians live in rural areas – 43 per cent, in fact, according to the 2015 State of Rural Canada report.

These rural communities face various economic and demographic challenges, including a declining population and shrinking economies.

And while the growth of urban centres is great, “improving productivity and competitiveness in our foundational rural industries – tourism, agriculture, fisheries, forestry, mining and manufacturing – is essential if we are to build a stronger trade economy for the province as a whole,” according to a 2014 report by One Nova Scotia’s Ivany Commission.

The growing aquaculture industry may just be the saving grace for rural communities.

The sector employs around 1,100 people directly in Nova Scotia, and 3,000 people in supporting industries, says Aquaculture Association of Nova Scotia’s Executive Director Tom Smith. The bulk of them are in rural and coastal communities.

“Aquaculture and aquaculture development around Nova Scotia can be significant drivers for rural and coastal communities,” he said.

The growth of the aquaculture industry is one of the provincial government’s economic development goals, as outlined in the Ivany report. One of its objectives is to double the value of exports from the fisheries industries, including aquaculture, on a sustainable basis by 2024. That would be worth around $1.6 billion.

The province’s aquaculture sector covers three main categories of species: finfish (salmon, and trout), shellfish (oysters, clams, quahog and mussels) and seaplants (sugar kelp and rockweed). In 2018, the industry size grew by more than double the previous year.

“We now represent about $120-million dollars in export capacity for the province of Nova Scotia,” Smith said.

Currently, there are around 140 aquaculture operators from Yarmouth to Cape Breton. The south shore is primarily home to salmon farming operations, while trout farms are common in Cape Breton.

“Both of those species are starting to expand in Nova Scotia and providing new opportunities for economic development in the province,” Smith said.

“One of the important things is that these farmers, both in the finfish sector as well as the shellfish sector, work not only to employ people on their own farms but they buy goods and services from a large number of businesses around their area,” Smith added. “And some of these businesses rely on companies that are prepared to come to rural Nova Scotia, work in rural Nova Scotia and employ people and create economic opportunities for those communities.”

Cooke Aquaculture veterinarian student in Nova Scotia. Image: Submitted

In the finfish sector, Cooke Aquaculture is the largest operator with 13 sites. Cooke alone has 205 full-time employees in its operations in Nova Scotia, with another 240 jobs created indirectly through the 309 local suppliers and other businesses it supports.

“That generates an annual payroll of $17.9-million in Nova Scotia and consumer spending from that payroll of $13.7-million. It also generates $7.4 million in taxation through the municipal, provincial and federal governments annually,” said Joel Richardson, the company’s VP of Public Relations.

One of the businesses that benefit from Cooke’s operations and the growth of the aquaculture sector is A.F. Theriault & Son Boatyard in Meteghan River.

“Aquaculture positively impacts our bottom line because fish farming growth in Nova Scotia the last several years has allowed us to expand our operations and train our employees for new skills and trades,” said owner Gilles Theriault. “We now have 165 employees and because aquaculture is a year-round farming operation, it provides year-round employment for our tradespeople.”

“We build and repair boats for both the fishing and aquaculture industries. Aquaculture presents a new era to take our company to the next level and an tremendous opportunity to hire more welders, millwrights, electricians, carpenters, and plumbers. We are grateful that our dedicated people work very hard everyday because they want our family-owned Nova Scotian company to grow along with the aquaculture and fishing industries,” Theriault added.

Cooke has especially become a key contributor to the economy in the western half of the province, where all of its sea farms are located. It’s now applied to the province to expand its salmon farm in Liverpool Bay, which will include a complete technical and scientific analysis by the provincial and federal network partners and an independent Review Board.

The Liverpool Bay sea farm site undergoes regular environmental monitoring and has been operating sustainably for 17 years. There, Cooke plans to add another 20 jobs and it expects local suppliers and businesses to benefit from the increased spin-off economic impact.

Such an expansion would mean growth and opportunity for coastal communities, Smith said.

But it would also be a boon for large centres like Halifax, said Patrick Sullivan, CEO of the Halifax Chamber of Commerce.

When rural communities grow, Sullivan said Halifax gets indirectly impacted because as a larger centre, it offers many goods and services that may not be available in smaller cities or towns. With more people in rural areas working in good jobs, more of them would also spend money in larger cities.

We really do need to see these rural communities turn from a declining population to an increasing population. And good jobs are the thing that’s going to turn those economies around. So we’re very hopeful,” – Patrick Sullivan.

Besides, Nova Scotia’s aquaculture industry could grow so much more. Sullivan said Nova Scotia only produces five per cent of the aquaculture market in Canada, while P.E.I. and Newfoundland produce around 15 per cent of the market each, and British Columbia produces 40 per cent.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for growth in the Nova Scotia market, given we have 7,200 kilometres of coastline,” Sullivan said.

Of course, with growth comes responsibility, particularly to make sure the industry practices environmental sustainability.

Smith said a “world-class” regulatory framework developed in 2013-2014 by the province and industry through public consultations covers everything from best management practices to community engagement and fish-health strategies.

Fish health is ensured through proper vaccinations, government- and vet-approved antibiotics, as well as farm-management principles and practices for a healthy and sustainable environment.

Smith said fish farm operators in Nova Scotia also have had to develop and implement a farm management plan in accordance with those regulations.

“We also now know how they intend to ensure the environmental sustainability of the area in which they operate,” he said.

Smith encourages those who want to know more about the aquaculture industry and opportunities within it to visit the websites of the Aquaculture Association of Nova Scotia and the federal government’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

This story was sponsored by Cooke Aquaculture.