Fish farming in Port Mouton Bay has significantly weakened the local lobster industry, according to a newly published 11-year study.
Market lobster hauls dropped an average of 42 per cent during periods when the aquaculture site was active. Catches of egg-bearing, or "berried" lobster, decreased by an average of 56 per cent.
The report, based on data collected from fishermen between 2007 and 2017, appears in the most recent edition of the Marine Ecology Progress Series. It found that, even during fallow periods at the fish farm, catch rates in Port Mouton remained significantly lower than the average for Lobster Fishing Area 33.
"It's not just by chance that we're seeing these differences," said marine biologist and lead author Inka Milewski during a July 10 presentation at Coastal Queens Place. Odour plumes and fecal waste produced by the fish farm have taken a measurable toll on the local lobster fishery, she said.
Milewski said odours contain cues used by lobster to locate food, detect predators, find mates and select habitats.
"The low oxygen conditions and dissolved sulphides and ammonium that can be produced in large quantities as a result of the waste released from (penned) fish farms are known to have behavioural and toxic effects on lobsters," she said in a press release the following day.
Two stocked and two non-stocked periods were observed during the study. Up to 15 lobster boats and 30 fishermen participated in data collection each year. The study consistently showed a correlation between activity on the farm and the amount of lobster caught in the area. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada, which oversees the lobster industry, was asked for comment but did not respond by deadline.)
Ricky Broome, a Port Mouton lobster fisherman for 42 years, said the results of the study confirm what he's seen on the water. "We knew something wasn't right," he said. "Our bay used to be one of the best bays there was for lobster fishing, but we definitely saw a decline after the farm went in. It's been doing damage for sure."
Another local fisherman, Danny Roy, agreed the aquaculture site has caused lobster catches to shrink. In fact, he believes the fish farm has affected other local species as well. "We used to dive for scallops, but the more fish they put in there, the fewer scallops we'd get," he said. "We also used to dive for mussels and they went down, too."
The eight-hectare aquaculture site was established in 1995 and is licensed for both trout and salmon until March 2020. It is located close to Spectacle Island and not far from Carters Beach, one of Queens County's most popular tourist destinations.
Bruce Hancock, the province's director of aquaculture, said the findings of the Port Mouton study conflict with other available data. "We are a little bit surprised with the report because it's not consistent with what we've seen from other reports that have been done on this topic," he said. "We are very curious to see what experimental design was used, how they collected their data and what conclusions they were drawing from the data that they got."
Nova Scotia is committed to the long-term, sustainable growth of both traditional commercial fisheries as well as aquaculture, Hancock said. "We have never, ever pursued this as an issue of one at the expense of the other."
The Port Mouton fish farm has been inactive since March 2015. Hancock said some of the concerns raised in the study are addressed by legislative changes made by the province in October 2015. The process for acquiring and renewing aquaculture sites was strengthened in what Hancock called "a major overhaul of our regulatory framework." New guidelines concerning waste conditions underneath fish farms were also imposed, he said.
"There is a mandatory monitoring program that takes place every year the site is stocked," he said. Monitoring is generally done by third parties hired by the companies running the fish farms, but Hancock said a "high audit rate" by fisheries and aquaculture officials helps ensure accuracy and compliance.
"The point is that some of the causal agents that they think might be leading to the movement deterring the lobsters (in Port Mouton) are ones that are now well regulated."
The provincial fisheries and aquaculture's site mapping tool identifies Ocean Trout Farms Inc. as the operator of the Port Mouton fish farm. The Nova Scotia Registry of Joint Stock Companies indicates the company is an extra-provincial corporation. It identifies Robert Devine of Coldwater, Ont., as its president and Real Boudreau of Pubnico as its official agent.
When LighthouseNow contacted the Ontario headquarters of Ocean Trout Farms' parent company, Cold Water Fisheries Inc., an official said Devine passed away in May and the business was winding down operations. "The company has basically been sold," said Joan Schalin. "We're just boxing up files."
Cold Water Fisheries CEO Cameron McDonald later confirmed the company is in a "transition" phase and that Devine had been a shareholder as well as its president. "We're shutting down our old headquarters," he said. "Certain legal things" will likely be relocated to Montreal, "but operationally things will be in the Maritimes."
McDonald described Cold Water Fisheries as "a privately owned company" with "a bunch of individual, private shareholders," including himself.
As for the Port Mouton study, McDonald said the company plans to review it and remains open to discussion with provincial officials and local residents. "Once we've had a chance to actually read and assess the study, we'll be happy to comment further," he said. "We want to be responsible stewards where we operate and we'll take everything into consideration."
Many local residents, including members of the advocacy group Friends of Port Mouton Bay, would like to see the fish farm closed permanently. However, McDonald said Cold Water Fisheries has no plans to vacate the site. "Nobody's told us that we have to leave. I'm happy to discuss with people, understand things, but nobody can just say, 'Hey, you've got to get the hell out.' That's not how it works."