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A fish farm that is striving to be recognized for producing organic salmon is suing for defamation after being attacked by an environmental group campaigning against aquaculture on the West Coast.

The case, which began in the Supreme Court of British Columbia yesterday, opens a new front in a bitter, intense and long-running battle between environmentalists and the fish-farming industry.

The two sides have exchanged verbal insults for years, but the case of Creative Salmon Company Ltd. versus Don Staniford, an aquaculture campaigner for Friends of Clayoquot Sound, marks the first time the courts have been asked to decide where the truth lies in an escalating war of words.

Creative Salmon, a relatively small fish-farming operation in Tofino, is asking for unspecified damages because of a series of news releases and posters produced by Friends of Clayoquot Sound in June of 2005.

In the releases, which Mr. Staniford, who is named as the sole defendant, is accused of writing, the environmental group alleges that the company tried to "scam" the public by claiming not to use chemicals.

The environmental group has said that Creative Salmon was singled out for criticism after the federal Canadian Food Inspection Agency reported that tests had found one salmon from the farm was contaminated with malachite green, a chemical that is carcinogenic.

Creative Salmon responded to that announcement by making a public declaration that the fish it sells had never been fed antibiotics, and that its salmon were raised to the highest organic standards.

That led to a countercharge from the environmentalists that Creative Salmon was "a liar and a consumer fraud," because the company had obtained provincial permits to use more than 200 kilograms of the chemical oxytetracycline during 2004.

"If malachite green contamination is confirmed, this blows out of the water Creative's claims to be 'organic' and chemical free," said the statement attributed to Mr. Staniford. "Creative Salmon must come clean on malachite green. Sea-cage salmon farming in the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is a threat to both public safety and to the health of wild salmon and the pristine ocean floor."

Dale Sanderson, the lawyer representing Creative Salmon, said that and other statements amounted to a malicious defamation of an "environmentally sensitive" company that was setting high standards as it sought to achieve organic certification.

Mr. Sanderson said Friends of Clayoquot Sound hired Mr. Staniford to undermine fish farms in B.C. in general, and in particular to "bring down" Creative Salmon, "because it was striving to be organic."

Mr. Sanderson said the attacks wrongly portrayed the fish farm as trying to deceive the public over its use of chemicals.

"Creative Salmon has never used malachite green. Its fish hatchery has never used malachite green and its feed supplier has never put malachite green in the food," Mr. Sanderson told court.

He said the malachite green detected in the federal tests could have been because of an error at the lab, and that the chemical is found in the broader environment and has been detected in wild salmon.

In his opening statement, Mr. Sanderson alleged that Mr. Staniford knew that malachite green could have been in the water generally, but he chose to ignore that in attacking Creative Salmon.

He also said the level of malachite green detected in the farmed salmon was so small - at 0.33 parts per billion - that it was below levels tested for in Japan.

"It's comparable to one second in 324 years," he said in attempting to illustrate the statistical insignificance of the find.

As for the oxytetracycline Creative Salmon bought, Mr. Sanderson said it was used only to treat brood stock, not fish being raised for market.

Creative Salmon employs 45 people and produces 1,800 tonnes of fish annually from six net pen sites.

The aquaculture industry in B.C. produces 80,000 tonnes of salmon annually, but it has long been under attack by environmentalists who say it spreads sea lice and diseases to wild fish.

The trial is expected to take one week.

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