The businessman behind a proposed oyster farm in Antigonish Harbour defended the project during a sometimes testy first day of public hearings before the Nova Scotia Aquaculture Review Board.
Former Lindsay Construction executive Ernie Porter wants to put a 36-hectare oyster farm in the harbour, representing about two per cent of the estuary surface area.
That was slimmed down from the original plan, which proposed a 60-hectare footprint, after consultations with local residents and fishermen.
Operating under the name Town Point Oysters, the farm would produce two to three million oysters a year from three lease sites, employing 10 people on a seasonal basis at first.
"The proposed solution included in the application we feel is a farm that's large enough to be economically viable and small enough to exist in harmony with the other users," Porter told the three-member panel hearing the case.
Town Point wants to use a relatively new form of suspended oyster farming that relies on round containers that sit lower in the water. The system reduces the sightlines from shore, produces a higher yield and can be mechanically harvested, Porter said.
Board says it is not a rubber stamp
The project is facing opposition from members of the community who are intervenors at the hearing, which is being held in Antigonish and livestreamed online.
"Our clients don't object to oyster aquaculture. They don't deny it can be a good thing, in the right site," said their lawyer, Peter Rogers.
Porter spent the day trying to persuade the board that Antigonish Harbour is the right site for an oyster farm.
He said it would be an asset environmentally because water filtering by oysters would result in a cleaner estuary. The farm itself would have minimal impact on neighbours, navigation or recreational users, he said.
"I'm not judging the board's role in any way. What I'm saying is, there's been four years of scrutinizing our application before we got here. So part of that scrutiny is looking at suitability," he said.
Chair Jean McKenna responded that "the board does not see approval or at least forwarding the application to the review board as meaning it's suitable and we don't have to do anything more. We could just have a nap up here. We don't see it that way and I don't think the applicant does either."
During cross-examination, Rogers moved to undermine some of Porter's claims.
He introduced a letter from Jeff Barrell, a Gulf region scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Porter had quoted Barrell saying the oyster farm would have a net positive effect on eelgrass in the estuary because it would improve water clarity.
Rogers quoted a letter from Barrell, saying: "This is not an accurate representation of my words. I was clear in my discussions with the proponent that such an assessment of net effect would require substantial data that do not currently exist and that many potential effects could occur both positive and negative."
Porter stood by his interpretation, saying Barrell told him shading underneath the farm might be a negative, but overall the effect of the oyster farm would be positive.
Rogers also introduced a letter from local oyster harvester Jamie Davidson. He recanted his support for the project this year, saying the proposed leases encroach on areas manually harvested in the harbour.
Beyond the issues in Antigonish Harbour, such hearings are supposed to improve the credibility of provincial government oversight of aquaculture.
The Aquaculture Review Board was created to provide an impartial and independent assessment of projects that are judged against eight criteria: the impact on local fisheries and other water users in the area, the environment, navigation, wild salmon sustainability, community and provincial economic development, its effect on nearby aquaculture operations and optimum use of marine resources.
The shellfish industry in Nova Scotia has long complained it is being treated with the same government scrutiny applied to far more intrusive and controversial open net pen salmon farms.
Part of Town Point's presentation included oyster production data from 2021. It showed Nova Scotia with 492 tonnes, compared to 2,436 tonnes in New Brunswick and 6,064 tonnes in Prince Edward Island.
Ernie Porter had an explanation for that.
"I think the main reason the other provinces are ahead is because the industry has been more embraced by communities in those provinces than in Nova Scotia. I think that's an underlying fundamental reason."
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