01/08/2012 05:00 EST | Updated 04/02/2012 05:12 EDT

Don Staniford, Fish Farm Opponent, Takes On B.C. Courts


VANCOUVER - Don Staniford says he's never had a fist fight — not even during his most ferocious action as a rugby player in high school or as a soccer player at university in the United Kingdom.

Change the subject to B.C.'s salmon farming industry, though, and the British-born activist with long, curly hair is more than willing to take on the world's largest salmon-farming companies in the ring of public opinion.

His outspoken criticism has earned him an appearance at the Supreme Court of B.C. on Jan. 16 where he must defend himself against allegations from Mainstream Canada, the province's second largest salmon farming company, that he defamed the organization.

The case could cost him $125,000 if he loses.

The defamation case is the second Staniford has faced in the province since 2005 and the third major legal fight of his 18-year international campaigning career.

"It's definitely a stressful situation," said Staniford, who is a native of Merseyside, England, near Liverpool.

"It's obviously gearing up for a fight. It's not a physical fight but it's a mental fight."

According to court documents, the case focuses on anti-salmon farming campaigns Staniford initiated on or about Jan. 31, 2011.

In those documents, Mainstream Canada's lawyer David Wotherspoon alleges Staniford disseminated and published defamatory and false statements about the company under three titles: "The Salmon Farming Kills Campaign", the "Silent Spring of the Sea," and "Smoke on the Water, Cancer on the Coast."

The company's amended notice of civil claim includes published graphics that look like cigarette packages and include warnings like "Salmon Farming Kills Like Smoking."

The company argues Staniford also wants to frustrate the World Wildlife Fund's pending certification scheme for farmed salmon.

The documents state that when the company's lawyers demanded Staniford cease and desist and retract his comments publicly, Staniford responded one minute past the deadline and with another cigarette-like-package graphic that read "Norwegian Owned" and included an image of a raised middle finger and the words "Salmon Farming."

Mainstream Canada produces 25,000 tonnes of fish in B.C. every year and is a subsidiary of the Norwegian company Cermaq.

"These statements that Staniford has used are styled after those kind of health warnings as though the salmon farming industry and farmed salmon is so dangerous that they require a health warning and is going to make people sick ... That's what this case is about," Wotherspoon said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

The company's trial brief states it's seeking $100,000 in general damages, $25,000 in punitive damages and a permanent injunction to stop Staniford from writing, printing or broadcasting defamatory words against Mainstream.

Staniford said he won't back down and settle the case, no matter the costs.

He's going up against a formidable opponent.

Mainstream Canada, which is headquartered in Oslo, Norway, also operates in Chile, Canada, Scotland and Vietnam. The Norwegian government is a majority shareholder, said a company official, and its legal counsel is Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP, which is, according to its own website, the "third largest Canadian-based law firm."

At trial, the company plans to call 10 witnesses, including Lise Bergen, it's parent company's director of corporate affairs in Norway, Ruth Salmon, executive director of the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance, and the executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association.

In contrast, Staniford said he is not currently employed and is being represented by Vancouver-based lawyer David Sutherland, who runs a two-person law firm.

Court documents state Staniford plans to call one expert witness — John Volpe, an associate professor at the University of Victoria — and "possibly others."

Staniford himself is a seasoned international campaigner not unfamiliar with court action and has said he earned an undergraduate degree in geography in Birmingham, England and a master's degree in environmental science from Lancaster University.

He said he became interested in the aquaculture debate while completing his degrees and then volunteered with the environmental group, Friends of the Earth Scotland. In 1997, he met the well-known B.C. anti-salmon farming activist Alexandra Morton at a conference in Seattle, Wash.

Staniford said he faced his first legal threat in 2001 from a Scottish salmon farming company, but no trial ever took place.

In 2002, he began working for the Salmon Farm Protest Group and won a British Environment and Media Award.

According to an Oct. 24, 2002 press release on the World Wildlife Federation website, Staniford "was a significant influence in persuading the Scottish Parliament to hold a formal inquiry into fish farming, has written a widely praised Friends of the Earth critique of fish farming in Scotland and uncovered proof that fish farm workers were being ordered to use illegal chemicals."

Staniford came to Canada in 2004 and in 2005 he took a job with the Tofino, B.C. environmental group, Friends of Clayoquot Sound.

In June of that year he issued two news releases that questioned Tofino's Creative Salmon Company Ltd.'s use of malachite green, an antibiotic and suspected carcinogen, on market fish.

Creative Salmon sued Staniford for defamation, and in January 2007, a Supreme Court of B.C. judge ordered him to pay $85,000 in damages in legal fees. But Staniford appealed and won a new trial. Then, the Supreme Court of Canada said it would not hear a subsequent appeal by the company.

At one point during the 2010 Winter Olympics, Staniford said he even tried to deliver a letter to the king of Norway during a hockey match in Vancouver.

When asked what motivated him to become an environmental activist, Staniford said he wasn't sure.

"It wasn't my parents," he said. "I don't know where it came from. I think it came from the gut somewhere."

But he added the matter comes down to his principles.

"I think there's a moral imperative and a duty, once you have that knowledge about salmon farming and its impact, to spread the message," he said.

"I think the onus is on researchers to be political, to be active and not just let that information rot on an academic bookshelf but to get that into the media and that really means being a campaigner."

Staniford said he has received financial support from West Coast Environmental Law, as well as citizens in Canada, the U.S. and Europe.

Among his fans is journalist, writer and angler Bruce Sandison, who was an angling correspondent for The Scotsman newspaper for 20 years and worked with Staniford in 2002.

He called Staniford's work ethic "quite extraordinary" and said the protester helped organize actions at supermarkets in Belfast, Edinburgh and London.

"One of Don's greatest abilities is the determination to ... research things," he said in a telephone interview from Scotland. "He seemed to be able to have the ability to put together a massive technical detail and make sense of it. He was very good and very committed."

But Laurie Jensen, a Mainstream Canada spokeswoman, said company and industry employees have come under personal attack from Staniford who has gone beyond "rational dialogue."

"He's crossed the line and he's done the same thing with accusing us that our product causes cancer," she said.

When asked if she agrees the court battle is a David and Goliath struggle, Jensen said the company is playing the role of David.

"I think we're on the righteous end of things in that we have to defend ourselves," she said. "If we don't, we do a disservice to our communities, our partners, our employees."

Mary Ellen Walling, executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association, said Staniford has made personal attacks on her and those attacks are hard to call "a respectful kind of dialogue."

"He doesn't seem to be interested in any kind of exchange of information," she said, adding that her association isn't funding any of the court action but wants to support people working in the industry.

Staniford remains defiant, standing behind his statements and his objective of shutting down the B.C. industry.

If he loses the court action, he said the company will find collecting the damages "like getting blood out of a stone."

"I am going to fight until the bitter end and win," he added.