Sparring in the fish farm debate has mutated into a full-fledged boxing match in the Supreme Court around the issue of free speech and the health implications of the industry. Fish farm critic Don Staniford has found himself in a 20-day defamation lawsuit, with only one month left in the country before his deportation back to the U.K.
“This is one person and a lawyer taking on a multinational corporation,” Staniford told the Martlet last week.
Mainstream Canada, the second largest international aquaculture company in Canada, has filed a defamation law suit against Staniford for an electronic media campaign that compares the fish farming industry to the tobacco industry, cigarette smoking and cancer. The lawsuit is viewed by many as a strategically convenient way to silence Staniford on the controversies surrounding fish farms.
Mainstream Canada is a subsidiary company of Cermaq, a Norweigan fish farm and fish-farm feed company traded on the Oslo Stock Exchange. And Staniford believes that the Norwegian government may be playing a godfather role in the politics of the international fish farm industry. Ninety-two per cent of British Columbian fish farms have Norwegian parent companies based in Oslo.
“Cermaq is owned by the Norwegian state,” says Staniford. “Its largest shareholder is the Ministry of Trade and Industry. They operate with subsidiaries all around the world. This is a huge billion-dollar company . . . with [operations] in Norway, Chile, Scotland, Canada and Vietnam.”
The “Salmon Farming Kills” ad campaign was released in January of 2011, targeting Norwegian owned and operated fish farming companies operating internationally, including in British Columbia. Exactly one year later the plaintiff — Mainstream Canada — opened 20-day defamation case against Staniford, who is represented by his lawyer David Sutherland.
The Canadian Boarder Service Agency and security personnel showed up on the first day of the trial to inform Staniford that the Liverpool native would be deported once his court case was finished.
For someone whose Visa had expired, getting into legal battles isn’t the best way to lay low, but Staniford believes that his deportation may be part of a larger political narrative at play. He now has a second lawyer and a security officer who will escort him directly to the airplane at the end of the month.
The judge in the case, Elaine Adair, has ruled to limit the arguments of the lawyers to the issues of the health implications of only Mainstream Canada’s British Columbian fish farm operations. The fundamental question being discussed is whether comparing the fish farm industry and their products to the tobacco industry and their products is inherently defamatory.
“What is most important is the conservation of the right of individuals to publicly criticize what they feel needs to be criticized without fear of litigation,” says UVic Environmental Studies professor John P. Volpe.
Volpe (who advises his UVic students against eating farmed salmon) was Staniford’s only witness called to the stand by Sutherland. “There is a laundry list as long as your arm, as to why someone would choose not to eat farmed salmon, ranging from ecological, health issues and social injustices. But for me the largest issue is that doing so contributes to the devaluation of wild salmon . . . Salmon is five percent fins and scales and 95 per cent rivers, oceans and forest. By devaluing salmon, we’re devaluing our entire ecosystem upon which we survive,” Volpe explains. However, on Jan. 31, the judge ruled that Volpe was inadmissible to testify and was dismissed as an expert witness.
“It’s a war of attrition. They are clearly trying to browbeat me,” says Staniford, “to put pressure financially on me.”
The concern that this court case is a restriction of free speech has caused an outpouring of donations to Staniford. UVic’s West Coast Environmental Law (WCEL) has given Staniford $20 000 from the environmental resolution dispute fund. A group of Norweigan fishermen gave him $10 000 in solidarity with Norwegian fish farm struggles. And he is utilizing a new online crowd-sourcing fundraising tool called gofundme.com where people can donate to the cause online. So far they have raised $28 000 online in less than three weeks, and the goal is $50 000.
“The support from here in British Columbia and around the world, including in Norway, has been phenomenal. Every day of trial costs me $3 000 just in legal bills. So we’re on schedule after day eight, but we need to raise more funds,” says Staniford.
“The plaintiff is suing for allegations that their reputation has been damaged by something published or said by the defendant,” explains Sutherland. “Very, very frequently where it concerns something in the public interest, like consequences of fish farming on public land and on the market, there will be public interest gagged, and therefore there is always going to be some concern about the affect of libel on freedom of speech.”
The Mainstream versus Staniford court case is scheduled to finish on Feb. 10 unless in the event of an extension. And Staniford has no intentions of slowing his campaigning down.
“Here in British Columbia it’s a key moment in the battle to save wild salmon. Wild salmon are the backbone of the B.C. coast. They are a cornerstone of the province. They fertilize the forest. They are a whole connecting force in British Columbia. So if we can stand together and defend wild pacific salmon against these corporations, I think everybody wins,” says Staniford.