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Judge tosses fish farm critic's bid to cast alleged libel as industry-wide critique

Fish are fed in an enclosed fish farm pen in B.C.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

A defamation case against a fish farm critic cannot be turned into a public inquiry that puts aquaculture on trial for its practices globally, a Supreme Court of British Columbia judge has ruled.

Madam Justice Elaine Adair on Wednesday refused an application from defence lawyer David Sutherland to amend the pleadings of Don Staniford, a controversial fish farm critic who says the case is an attempt by big business to silence him.

Mr. Sutherland had sought to broaden the scope of the case to look at the impact of fish farming internationally.

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His application came on the third day of the trial, in which Mainstream Canada is accusing Mr. Staniford of damaging the company by comparing farmed salmon to tobacco.

Mr. Sutherland argued that his client's campaign (which was launched in January, 2011, on the website of a group called The Global Alliance Against Industrial Aquaculture) had been critical of fish farms in general, not just Mainstream Canada. He wanted the court to consider "a range of meanings" in the words Mr. Staniford used that are alleged to be defamatory, which would open the way to hear evidence about the industry globally.

"We say it's not defamatory of Mainstream, because it's talking about an industry worldwide," Mr. Sutherland said of the slogans Mr. Staniford used in the campaign, which ran under the banner: "Salmon farming kills."

Mainstream Canada's lawyer, David Wotherspoon, objected to the application, however, saying Mr. Staniford's campaign specifically targeted his client in declaring, among other things, that "Salmon farms are cancer," and "Salmon farming kills like smoking."

The graphic for the campaign showed mock cigarette packages labelled "Norwegian owned" and carried a number of other slogans, including "Salmon farming??? Better to smoke 'em than eat 'em," and "Salmon farming is a leathal [sic]weapon."

Mainstream Canada, the second largest producer of farmed salmon in B.C., is a subsidiary of the Norwegian company Cermaq ASA, a world leader in farmed salmon production.

In a notice of claim, the company alleges that Mr. Staniford's campaign "is calculated to injure the aquaculture industry in British Columbia and elsewhere, including Mainstream's business and the reputation and the goodwill it enjoys with its customers."

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It states that the campaign "employs graphic imagery that links the defamatory words and Mainstream to tobacco manufacturers and cigarettes."

And it says that "the defamatory words meant ... Mainstream's business and products kill people; Mainstream's business and products make people sick; Mainstream's products are unsafe for human consumption."

Mr. Wotherspoon said that if the application was granted, it would fundamentally shift the focus of the case, away from what Mr. Staniford said to the actions of fish farms worldwide.

"It's seeking to put Norwegian salmon farming everywhere on the globe on trial," he said, arguing "the court should not provide a forum for a crusade."

Judge Adair agreed, and said the focus of the case is on what was said by Mr. Staniford and whether those comments were true or fair comment.

The activities of fish farms globally "are not what this case is about," she said.

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"The defence must be directed to the complaint that's made by the plaintiff in the action," Judge Adair said. "I'm exercising my discretion and refusing to grant the proposed amendments."

The trial is set to run for 20 days. Mainstream Canada is seeking general, special and punitive damages, plus a permanent injunction to stop Mr. Staniford and The Global Alliance Against Industrial Aquaculture from publishing defamatory words against the company.

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