A new coalition calling for tougher regulation of the aquaculture industry says it would be unacceptable for the Newfoundland and Labrador government to buy a multi-million dollar stake in a massive salmon farming project in Placentia Bay.
"It's a conflict of interest," says Leo White, one of the founders of the Newfoundland and Labrador Coalition for Aquaculture Reform (NL-CAR).
"Someone who's got a $45 million stake, that makes them a big shareholder. And then to be responsible for oversight and regulation of that project at the same time … it's impossible."
The coalition held its first news conference in St. John's Tuesday morning. NL-CAR is made up of more than 20 organizations, including conservation, environmental and indigenous groups, academics and scientists.
White said the government's proposed investment isn't the way the province's money should be spent.
"If the industry is going to come here it should be sustainable, it should be able to look after itself," he said. "It should not need public money."
The previous provincial government signed a memorandum of understanding to buy a $45 million dollar stake in a Grieg aquaculture project that has been proposed for the Placentia Bay area.
The current government says it hasn't yet decided if it will honour that.
But Grieg told CBC News the future of the project depends on that money.
Environmental assessment sparks challenge
White, who is also the vice-president of Salmonid Council of Newfoundland and Labrador, said NL-CAR's formation was sparked by the provincial government's decision to release the proposed quarter-billion-dollar salmon farming project from any further environmental assessment.
Grieg NL Nurseries Ltd. and Grieg NL Seafarms have registered a plan that includes a new $75-million, state-of-the-art hatchery/nursery facility in Marystown that will produce seven million smolts annually to stock 11 sea cage sites for a harvest of 33,000 tonnes of Atlantic salmon.
It's proposing four areas will be developed along the western side of Placentia Bay and near Long Harbour, and is expecting that to create more than 300 jobs.
In July 2016, then-minister of environment and climate change, Perry Trimper, released the project from further environmental assessment. That decision was appealed, but in October Trimper announced the decision would stand.
"That was the catalyst," said White.
"We felt if we don't have an environmental assessment process to participate in, what else can we do? One thing was to challenge it in court which we are doing and the other is to form a broad based coalition."
The court case challenging the government's decision is due to be heard in court in St. John's on March 30 and 31.
Coalition not opposed to aquaculture
White said the coalition fears salmon farming has already done extensive damage to the province's wild salmon populations, but added the group is not opposed to the development and growth of aquaculture.
"We are not anti-aquaculture," said White.
"We think that jobs are important and if the industry develops using closed containment on land or in the ocean (instead of with open sea cages) in my view there would be more jobs associated with that, not less."
NL-CAR was not formed solely to deal with the Grieg proposal, White said, and whatever happens with Grieg, the coalition will continue to advocate for stricter regulation of aquaculture, as well as greater public involvement.