The Supreme Court of British Columbia is currently hearing a case that some have referred to as a classic David and Goliath battle: Mainstream Canada, BC’s second-largest salmon company, is suing Don Staniford, an environmental activist, for defamation.
About a year ago, Staniford launched a provocative campaign entitled ‘Salmon Farming Kills’. The campaign’s imagery was fashioned after the warnings on cigarette packs, and included phrases like ‘Salmon Farms are Cancer’ and ‘Salmon Farming Causes Disease’. Court documents indicate that Mainstream is seeking $100,000 in general damages, $25,000 in punitive damages, and an injunction to permanently stop Staniford from defaming Mainstream, now or at any point in the future.
In January of 2012, a judge refused Staniford’s request to effectively change the case from a defamation allegation to a public inquiry on the dangers of international fish farming. Staniford argued that the campaign was not specifically targeted at Mainstream, but at salmon and fish farming generally. The judge disagreed, and said the focus of the case should remain whether or not Staniford defamed Mainstream; in other words, did the words and images of the campaign damage Mainstream’s reputation as a salmon farmer, and were they true or fair comments?
The case is an interesting one for many reasons. While Staniford is arguably one of Canada’s most high-profile activists against fish farming, there are many other critics of farmed fish. Reduced disease-resistance, overcrowding of fish, increased pollution, and threats to wild fish stocks are all issues the farming industry faces. But there are two sides to the coin: supporters of fish farming counter that it helps prevent overfishing of wild stocks, and meets the growing global demand for fish in a sustainable way. Also, the BC industry continues to be regulated by the federal Department of Fisheries, which monitors and enforces fish farming with a mandate to ensure sustainable, environmentally conscious development.
Ultimately, this case is not deciding whether or not fish farming is indeed a viable, environmentally sustainable practice, even though that is what Staniford wanted. But the decision will shed interesting light on the limits of activism – where does an environmental campaign cross the line from provocative, impactful messaging to illegal defamation? Mainstream and Staniford will find out soon.