Salmon Pens and Rural Prosperity
What works in rural Nova Scotia — or anywhere else in North America? And who works? And at what?
It seems clear from various conversations people have had with the Nova Scotia Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture that the provincial government is traumatized by the issue of rural decline, and is looking for big employers to take up the slack left by industrial-era enterprises like the pulp mills, fish plants, mines etc. But those days are gone – and rural communities are much better off with many small enterprises rather than a handful of large ones. The demands being made by the successors to the NewPage paper mill in Port Hawkesbury, Pacific West, leave the business risk almost entirely on their suppliers, from NS Power and the taxpayers of Richmond County to the woodlot owners and the mill workers – and the government of Nova Scotia, which is a huge investor. If the venture works, Pacific West will take the profits. If it fails, you and I will take the losses.
This is socialization of risk coupled with privatization of profit, and – though it's not a really unusual way for governments to behave — it's about as dumb-ass an economic policy as one can readily imagine. (What other major investor doesn't even get shares, or seats on the board?)
The government obviously wants to be seen to be doing something for rural NS. Commendable — and it may be the reason the NDP is hell-bent on encouraging salmon net-pen aquaculture in the open sea. That initiative clearly isn't working. But in the post-industrial epoch, what approach actually will work in rural NS?
Actually, quite a lot of things – so part of the “ask” for the moratorium period that aquaculture critics are calling for should be a qualitative research project on just what is working now in small communities – and there's a lot more than most people imagine. If you go around the province asking what's going on in the villages and small towns, you find that people are doing computer programming, many variations of consulting, graphic design, and a range of arts and crafts. They're designing and building specialized trailers, making hardwood floors and exporting them to Europe, manufacturing marine electronics, making sex toys to sell online, doing film and video production, recording music and selling it online, publishing books and representing authors as agents, building and exporting ambulances, serving the recreational fishery, making baked goods and selling them over half the province, running odd little businesses like the one that buys obsolete diesel engines in Canada and sells them to the Third World, roasting and grinding coffee, and much much more. And this is all in addition to traditional businesses like fishing, forestry, tourism and agriculture, which themselves are being transformed to fit the post-industrial era, as witness the emergence of artisanal food and wine production in the Valley.
And all of this, broadly speaking, has the enthusiastic approval of rural residents.
I would like to see us open up the minds of the decision-makers about what is possible in rural Nova Scotia by demonstrating what is already being done, and by pressing the point that 100 businesses with an average of five employees each represents a far more stable and sustainable economy than one business with 500 employees. The economy of the future will be high-knowledge, very diverse and very local – although the knowledge industries, paradoxically, will be selling to the world from market towns and hamlets. A small part of the provincial investment that's now going into unsustainable industries like aquaculture and pulp mills could spark a huge boom in rural NS.
That's where government should be spending its money. And when they do pause in their headlong obsession with salmon farming, that's what we should ask them to explore while we re-imagine a proper aquaculture policy for the 21st century.