06/25/2014 11:05 EDT | Updated 08/25/2014 05:59 EDT

Independent study concludes land-based aquaculture model not commercially viable

HALIFAX - An independent report commissioned by the Nova Scotia government is calling into question the commercial viability of farming Atlantic salmon in land-based, closed-containment facilities.

But one Halifax-based environmental organization involved in the report said the issue lies more with flaws in how aquaculture is regulated in the province and the external costs associated with farming fish on land.

"The problem is open-net aquaculture doesn't have to pay for all the externalities," said Susanna Fuller, a co-ordinator at the Ecology Action Centre, which was a member of the report's advisory committee.

"In closed containment you have to pay for your externalities: you pay for your waste, you pay for electricity, you pay for your oxygen."

Fuller argued fish farms that use open-net pens avoid these costs by using the marine ecosystem for free.

The report by Gardner Pinfold Consulting also concluded that land-based salmon-farming operations — while technically feasible — would have to be large-scale to overcome the inherent engineering, building, labour and energy costs.

The 52-page document added that the practice's financial feasibility would have to be confirmed by observing the actual performance of a commercial-scale operation.

The report's findings came as no shock to industry representatives.

"I'm not surprised, the technology is available but the return on investment just isn't there," said Pamela Parker, executive director of the Atlantic Canada Fish Farmers Association.

While advisory committee members agreed on the need for an economy of scale to ensure the financial viability of land-based aquaculture operations, Fuller said the group failed to reach a consensus on issues related to how the province regulates the industry.

"We need a regulatory framework that incents environmentally sustainable practices and right now we have a regulatory framework that allows fish farms to do what we would not allow any other farm on land to do," Fuller said.

Parker estimated it would cost $1.5 billion to move existing Atlantic production operations to land facilities.

Besides the costs, she described open-water systems as more environmentally sustainable in some ways than their land-locked equivalents.

"You remove an (open-water) farm and within six months to a year it's returned to its baseline state. You wouldn't know a farm was ever there," said Parker.

"You certainly can't say that about a terrestrial farm."

The Nova Scotia government began an independent aquaculture regulatory review in spring 2013 and said it expects preliminary work to be ready for consideration by the summer.

The report also noted that land-based operations would not be restricted to coastal communities, given the existence of efficient water recirculation technology.

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