Nova Scotia's Premier and Aquaculture

The Dangerous "Truthiness" of Darrell Dexter


January 14, 2013 - 14:48 —
Timothy Gillespie

Claims of jobs, ferry traffic, aquaculture science don’t hold up

When I first heard Darrell Dexter’s now-legend Jan 2 radio interview about “his time in office so far”,  I was disturbed by what I thought were errors in the facts he used to support his positions about the Yarmouth ferry, jobs at Irving Shipyards in Shelburne and the benefits of his government’s vaunted aquaculture  policy.

His comments – especially about the Yarmouth Ferry - touched off a flood of criticism and several subsequent press reports and I decided to have my own New Year’s tete-a-tete with the Premier.

I have to say that, personally, I like Darrell Dexter and have since I first met him when I was working on Sterling Belliveau’s first campaign for MLA. Even as a smallish, rural media outlet, I’ve been treated courteously by Dexter and his staff.

His authoritative style and straight-forward manner makes the outcome of that 45-minute interview all the more disturbing, as Mr. Dexter’s penchant for “truthiness” would make even Stephen Colbert  blush.  Just so we are all on the same page, I am referring to the slang expression, often used ironically and suggesting that something that seems true is not borne out in reality.

I will not quibble about the main thrust of Mr. Dexter’s argument about the Yarmouth Ferry, because the well-established historical record makes it difficult for any reasonable person to suggest a strong business case for renewed ferry service and makes his government ‘s decision seem rational.

That said, it seemed a waste of political capital for Dexter to insist on the radio that, in the year before he effectively cancelled the ferry, there were only 22,000 passengers in total. According to an ACOA-funded report on ferry service from Maine to Yarmouth ferry traffic had sunk from 300,000 in 2001 to slightly less than 85,000 in 2008.

The premier admitted that, in hindsight, his government should have conducted an inquiry and report about the ferry mess sooner than it did (September, 2012), but proudly reiterated his claim of 22,000 passengers. He also expressed chagrin that the two opposing parties each have deep roots in the Yarmouth area and have a much greater capacity than the NDP to control the message on difficult issues.

Although Liberal Yarmouth MLA Zach Churchill has played a form of ‘whack-a-mole’ with Dexter over the past two years surrounding the ferry issue, Mr. Dexter singled out Argyle MLA Chris d’Entremont (PC) as seeming to “generate negativity at a whim.”

The level of negativity surrounding the ferry issue, he said, was very disadvantageous to “getting things done.”

In a separate interview, d’Entremont said he was surprised at being targeted by Dexter, as he has attempted to work with the government on solutions to the ferry issue. “How could he say that the loss of the ferry hasn’t impacted the area?, “ d’Entremont asked. “Why not admit a mistake and move on?”

In reciting the various accomplishments, the premier boasted that the NDP support of Irving Shipyards in Shelburne – to the tune of $9 million – has created hundreds of jobs. Having reported on the fluctuating job figures at Irving-owned Shelburne Ship Repair in the two years since the facility reopened, I was naturally suspect of this claim.

When questioned about it, Mr. Dexter said his figures included the many multiples of “spin-off” jobs those at the facility would create and were supported by a government-sponsored report by the Conference Board of Canada touting the benefits of the Ships Start Here program.

Researching the report and government news releases and speaking with executives at Irving, Canadian Auto Workers, Canadian Manufacturing Association, and Conference Board, it appears that Dexter’s figures were again off base.  An Economic Development Department news release said Shelburne Ship Repair had 35 employees when it re-opened after the $9 million government stimulus. Jobs there are cyclic and based on project contracts and the increase of jobs from the original 35 have risen at times to 75, but not beyond.

According to figures available through CAW, Conference Board and CMA, the “multiplier” factor of spin-off jobs is generally considered no more than three. This would have the “hundreds” of jobs claimed by Dexter no more than 160, but, because of the constant rise and fall of employees, more likely closer to 100.

Another feather the premier seemed to want in his cap was one to celebrate the job creation machine of his aquaculture strategy. Dexter has said repeatedly that the increased development of aquaculture in the province would be of great benefit to rural communities and told me that there was “a whole body of evidence” which supported claims that aquaculture open net pen aquaculture was not harmful to other fisheries or to the marine environment.

He said even Atlantic salmon were coming back to the streams in the area.

Dexter also said that new aquaculture policy would ensure vigilant monitoring of fish farms and strong enforcement of regulations.

Here again, the premier seems to run afoul of existing records. When asked about the science claim and reminded that his aquaculture minister had both refused to provide scientific evidence to fishermen requesting it time, he said that there was plenty of science on a web site in Norway. A request to his staff for the web address of that site is outstanding.

As for monitoring and enforcement, noted marine scientist Inka Milewski says of his claims there don’t match up with her research and examination of the historic monitoring record of several salmon farm sites in the province, which indicate that the provincial government has been unable to prevent sites from becoming polluted or even “grossly polluted.”

“The province’s solution for polluted sites is simply to allow it to fallow for a year or two or to allow the farm to relocate, often just 100 metres away,” she said. “There is nothing special about the oceanographic characteristics of the recently-approved Jordan Bay salmon sites that tells me these farms will not become polluted or grossly polluted in the fullness of time.”

A just-released six-year survey based on lobster fishing trap counts in Port Mouton Bay deflates Dexter’s – and Belliveau’s – claims that salmon farms improve lobster fishing in an area.

There apparently is science in hand within government, according to the Atlantic Salmon Federation. Dexter and his staff have been provided with “numerous peer-reviewed, scientific studies which prove the impacts of disease, parasites, and genetic interaction that weakens the wild salmon gene pool,” says Sue Scott of ASF, who says that “denial still exists.”

Rather that salmon returning to streams where anglers have traditionally fished, she says that “wherever open net pen salmon aquaculture operates in eastern Canada, the nearby wild salmon populations have been designated as threatened (southern Newfoundland) or endangered (Bay of Fundy and Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia).  

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), she added, has identified salmon aquaculture as a serious negative impact on these threatened and endangered wild salmon populations.

Even the jobs claims in aquaculture by Dexter and his caucus do not appear to stand up to much scrutiny. While claiming the push to enlarge the industry will create “good, well-paying, full-time jobs” in rural Nova Scotia, this does not necessarily seem to be the case.

A review of public information available from a variety of sources (DFO, NS Govt, Atlantic Salmon Federation, Lobster Council Canada, Tourism Industry of Nova Scotia) shows that, per million dollar of revenue,  aquaculture job production ranks dead last when compared to the lobster fishery, tourism, and recreational fishing  -   industries which say they may be or have been negatively affected by aquaculture.

Using government data, jobs relating to finfish aquaculture have decreased in twenty years, while production has significantly increased.  A similar pattern can be seen in Norway. New, highly-mechanized processing machines used in plants in Norway, Chile and Newfoundland presage an even smaller ratio between finfish production and reliable jobs.

All of this said, I still find myself liking Darrell Dexter.

But his apparent penchant for truthiness – rather than the straight truth - should make those of us who are depending upon his promises of a better future for our communities through the policies of his government more than just a bit nervous.

Timothy Gillespie is publisher/editor of South Coast Today