From its base in Halifax, the Aquaculture Association of Nova Scotia (AANS) operates across the province “from Yarmouth to Cape North, Cape Breton, and all points in between,” according to association Executive Director Tom Smith. The not-for-profit, membership-based industry trade group was founded in 1977 by a volunteer group of sea farmers. Today, it represents over 95 percent of all aquaculture farming in Nova Scotia across three sectors: finfish such as salmon, trout, and striped bass; shellfish such as oysters, mussels, clams, quahogs, scallops; and sea plants such as sugar kelp.
Smith explains that there are key differences between aquaculture and fisheries. Whereas fishing is a large industry represented by ocean-caught fish and other seafood, aquaculture has to do with the practice of sea farming. This involves the raising of fish crops from egg to plate, much like a terrestrial farmer. Most farms in the province are family-run businesses and based in rural and coastal communities, to which the association strives to provide assistance in as many ways as possible.
The association provides industry support and advocacy, mostly through working with local and provincial governments as well as the aquaculture sector on regulations and a regulatory framework that serve to move the industry forward. As an example of this, he recounts that this includes attending community meetings about new farms being established throughout Nova Scotia. The association will regularly help with these types of meetings as well as getting out into communities and building public trust and social license around the province.
The AANS also runs many programs on behalf of both the industry and its members. The association has worked with the Atlantic Fisheries Fund to manage a financial assistance program for shellfish farmers. Using this, sea farmers can look to the AANS for funding support for expanding their businesses, infrastructure needs, and new technology developments.
The association also works with outreach projects like the recently completed, third annual Atlantic Canadian Oyster Export Café in New York City. Events like this help to introduce Atlantic oyster farmers to buyers, distributors, and restaurateurs on the eastern seaboard, a highly profitable market for sea farmers.
The aquaculture industry is no stranger to sweeping changes. In Nova Scotia, 2016 to 2017 was a time of major development, according to Smith, as a new regulatory framework for responsible and sustainable development of the province’s agriculture industry was introduced. The association works with its members to understand how these regulations impact aquaculture in Nova Scotia. The AANS also looks to provide advice on improvements that can be suggested to make the regulatory framework more efficient.
One way it supports this is through involved training programs that help farmers establish a farm management plan, which is a regulatory requirement in Nova Scotia. Nova Scotia farms now also require security bonds to protect against any business that shuts down and leaves behind ‘ghost gear,’ as unused farming equipment is known. The AANS has developed a program to support this requirement.
The association now offers a fund to clean up this gear. “We don’t want aquaculture to be the cause of any problems related to debris on coastal communities,” Smith says. These ongoing projects are of great importance, and work is continuing with both government and association members to work with local communities on this program as well as develop community beach clean-ups.
He notes that getting applications through the new regulatory framework is a time-consuming and detailed process, with work still being done to process applications more quickly. Resource-based industries such as aquaculture are experiencing challenges in access to labour, which concerns the association. Association members want to get the aquaculture message out to a wider population with attention paid to young people, visible minorities, and women. Aquaculture “is no longer low-paying manual labour jobs,” Smith assures. “These are good, high-paying jobs for farm managers and workers, researchers, biologists, and technicians.”
To aid this, the association launched a program in 2021 with the Nova Scotia Department of Labour, Skills, and Immigration to encourage new entrants to the industry and to have them stay in the province. The pandemic has also had a significant effect on the aquaculture sector due to restaurants and retail stores scaling back and decreased sales of seafood products outside of Nova Scotia. Smith reports that the industry seems to be coming out the other side with incredibly strong business; in fact, there is now a pent-up demand for good quality seafood farmed in the province. “We need more product in the water and access to new leases and expansions,” which is a key driver of recent initiatives within the sector, he says.
Those within the association are excited about where the aquaculture industry is headed, as it has grown from a roughly $55 million industry circa 2017 to an over $100 million industry some five years later. Smith notes that there are 146 active aquaculture leases active in the province currently, with more than 57 applications for new leases and expansion in development. There is a great deal of interest in investing in Nova Scotia and expanding the aquaculture industry. He mentions an exciting research project in Cape Breton that is examining growing sugar kelp on shellfish lines, a move that will look to increase biomass on these lines. The cultivated seaweed industry is still emerging, and he feels it will be important for aquaculture developments.
The association’s plans illustrate the kind of work the aquaculture industry is most focused on in 2022. First, further efforts will be made in devising a plan to engage Nova Scotians in what aquaculture means from the standpoint of attracting and retaining labour. Smith cites a recently conducted public opinion poll in December 2021 which indicates that residents of the province strongly favour both the aquaculture industry and the provincial government supporting the industry, recognizing the economic and social impact of the industry, especially for rural and coastal communities.
The association is developing strategies to highlight farmed seafood in the marketplace, as polling shows that not all people understand the different products farmed in the province. To change this, the association will be launching a campaign to identify the products and companies that farm seafood products in the province.
The AANS will also be working with the Nova Scotia Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture to produce the 2022 Nova Scotia Minister of Fisheries/Sea Farmers Conference this coming October 12 and 13, which will be held in person this year in Halifax. Speakers will be invited to speak about aquaculture and fishery development around the world, highlighting the importance that the seafood sector has for Nova Scotia’s future.
Smith sees nothing but growth on the horizon for an industry that has come to be recognized as a vital part of the region. “The opportunity for sea farming in Nova Scotia and Atlantic Canada is extremely strong. The opportunities going forward… will yield continued sector growth.” The Aquaculture Association of Nova Scotia will continue to help sea farmers in Nova Scotia through strong program development and mentor initiatives to support the growth they believe is building in Nova Scotia.