Argyle warden stands by fast-tracking shellfish farm approvals despite complaints

Danny Muise is the warden of the Municipality of Argyle. He says
Danny Muise is the warden of the Municipality of Argyle. He says

Opposition is surfacing in southwestern Nova Scotia over a decision by two levels of government to fast-track approvals of shellfish farms in the Municipality of Argyle, raising questions about the level of public support in the area for shellfish aquaculture.

"I don't think development should be here. Put your oyster cages where there are no homes and people using it for boating," said Donna Gaudet, a local resident who opposes a pending oyster farm expansion near her home.

But the local warden is defending expedited approvals, saying shellfish aquaculture is a positive for the area — and opposition is largely a case of the colloquialism NIMBY, or "Not In My Backyard."

"We stand by what we did," Warden Danny Muise said.

Last month, the province issued a call for proposals to lease six "pre-approved" sites for shellfish or marine plants. It does not apply to salmon farms.

The call was the culmination of years of legwork by the Municipality of Argyle, which included securing federal authorizations for 53 sites the municipality deemed suitable as well as a public engagement process.

Found out on Facebook

Not everyone was aware or supportive.

"I just found out about it last week because somebody posted something on Facebook. That's the only way I found out," said lifelong resident Dale Pothier.

Pothier and others say they were caught off guard when the province created the Argyle Aquaculture Development Area last month.

Applications for new lease sites inside the area will be subject to an administrative review — or paper hearing — not the lengthy, quasi-judicial regulatory process required elsewhere in Nova Scotia. It can result in drawn-out and adversarial public hearings.

The Aquaculture Development Area designation is a first in Canada and is expected to turn around approvals within a year. Right now, approvals can take five years or more.

The six sites now up for lease include an expected 24-hectare oyster farm expansion at Salt Bay in Eel Brook where Pothier and some neighbours are unhappy.

'I would not want to wake up every morning and see that'

"Why should one or two businesses profit at the expense of all the citizens that vote and enjoy recreation here and the beauty of it? I would not want to wake up every morning and see that," said Gaudet, gesturing to dozens of floating oyster cages nearby.

She's upset that a former municipal employee who promoted the Argyle Aquaculture Development Area has since gone into the aquaculture business.

Some Argyle residents are concerned shell fish farms approvals are being fast-tracked.
Some Argyle residents are concerned shell fish farms approvals are being fast-tracked.

Some Argyle residents are concerned that approvals for shellfish farms are being fast-tracked. (Paul Poirier/CBC)

Michel Surette, another resident, said the pre-approved sites will block waterways in Salt Bay and elsewhere.

"People come there and fish and you see kayakers and all kinds of different water sports going on and it's going to restrict it. You're not going to be able to pass at the same places anymore," Surette said.

"I was totally unaware that this was going on until the announcement was made a month ago."

A Facebook page, Argyle Association for Responsible Aquaculture, has 68 members claiming to represent stakeholders "concerned with the lack of transparency and fairness."

'We had public engagement,' says warden

Muise acknowledged some residents were unaware and are concerned, but he is making no apologies.

"We had a public engagement. It was comprehensive. We probably did more than what protocol asked for. We were on the radio, we were in the newspapers, we had pamphlets handed out. It was in our newsletter. So it was there for everybody, for anybody to be able to know what was going on," he told CBC News.

"We don't know how many people are upset. We're hearing a few, but we don't know how many people are upset in our whole municipality."

On June 4, the Aquaculture Association of Nova Scotia is holding an open house in Tusket to promote the economic benefits of the Argyle Aquaculture Development Area.

Opponents say they are not opposed to aquaculture, just where it is under consideration.

A call for proposals to lease six "pre-approved" sites for shellfish or marine plants came after years of legwork by the Municipality of Argyle. (Paul Poirier/CBC)

Muise said he's asked residents if they would have the same opinion if the Aquaculture Development Area were planned for somewhere else.

"And the answer was, 'I'd be concerned, but not half as much as what I am now.' So it tells you that it's the unsightly part of it that I think is the biggest concern right now," he said.

Public comment period ends soon

Muise said the province will have to consider public opposition in deciding whether to approve or reject the lease proposals.

The public comment period on the first six lease sites ends June 15.

There are no public hearings under the Aquaculture Development Area process.

"Municipal staff worked hard to connect with the community and local stakeholders about the project," JoAnn Alberstat, a spokesperson for the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, said in a statement.

"This included direct engagement, publications, pop-up sessions, presentations, social media and public open houses. The results of these engagements were shared with the department."

She said once a potential operator applies and submits the required information, there is a 30-day period for public input. Applications and decisions will be posted online.

Nova Scotia lags in shellfish values

Nova Scotia lags well behind the other Maritime provinces when it comes to shellfish aquaculture, in both production and value.

In 2022, it was valued at $45 million in Prince Edward Island and $23 million in New Brunswick. Nova Scotia was last at $13 million.

The shellfish sector in Nova Scotia has complained for years that it has been hamstrung by the lengthy regulatory process.

Earlier this month, Michelle Samson, president of the Aquaculture Association of Nova Scotia, resigned her position and got out of the business in frustration over the lack of progress to secure leases for a proposed oyster farm in Arichat, N.S.