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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Increase in shellfish deaths causes 'full-scale panic' for B.C. industry

Increase in shellfish deaths causes 'full-scale panic' for B.C. industry

B.C.’s shellfish industry is struggling for survival as it deals with rising ocean temperature and acidification. Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann, PROVINCE

by BY GLENDA LUYMES, THE PROVINCE, February 17, 2015
Despite insatiable demand, many are concerned B.C.’s once-thriving shellfish industry could be sinking.

“I’d say it’s full-scale panic mode (for scallop farmers),” said Rob Saunders, CEO of Qualicum Beach-based Island Scallops.

The company has seen its scallop death rates rise to nearly 95% since 2010, leading to millions of dollars in losses. Ocean acidification — a worldwide problem — is likely to blame.

Saunders said the company’s hatcheries, which produce scallop, oyster, prawn and sea urchin “seeds,” have also had trouble with increased deaths. In order to grow, the B.C. industry must double its seed production.

“Everyone is desperately trying to understand what’s going on and what can be done,” he said.

Other B.C. shellfish growers, like Denman Island oyster farmers Greg Wood and his wife Hollie, have found themselves “going year by year to see if we can make it.”

Wood blames oyster mortality rates on rising ocean temperatures, which cause more parasites and bacteria to grow.

“The problems are extreme,” he said. “We’re being attacked from all angles.”

The possibility of a coal mine a few kilometres from Baynes Sound, where 50% of B.C.’s shellfish are grown, is a major concern.

While each type of shellfish is different in its ability to tolerate changing ocean conditions, they all depend on a clean environment, said Roberta Stevenson, executive director of the B.C. Shellfish Grower’s Association.

“Ocean warming, urban run-off, acidification — it all has an impact,” she said.

Production on B.C.’s coast has dropped 12% since 2003, according to the association.
Red tape has also been a problem for the industry, which is regulated by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, but receives business licensing through the provincial Ministry of Agriculture and land-use licenses through the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.

“We’d like to see some of the processes streamlined and have one agency that oversees all aquaculture,” said Stevenson.

One thing that is not a problem, however, is demand.

Considered a clean, sustainable industry by many, local shellfish farmers have more customers than they can satisfy.

Hollie Wood Oysters sells its oysters within 160 kilometres, supplying many Vancouver Island chefs, said Wood.

“People know us as a local brand, and we’ve really been able to work with the local food movement.”

Wood described shellfish farming like gardening: “We put the seeds out and then raise them. It’s like an ocean garden.” Shellfish don’t require feed and eat naturally-occurring phytoplankton. A critical component of a healthy marine environment, they essentially filter the ocean water.

But the industry has met with criticism for its impact on shorelines and beaches.

“We’ve done beach cleanups for about 10 years now, and each time we haul away three to five tonnes of debris, mostly plastics,” said Shelley McKeachie, co-chair of the Association of Denman Island Marine Stewards.

She recounts finding a beach covered in “snow” — tiny white Styrofoam pellets from the shellfish rafts — after a storm.

“The industry is riddled with environmental issues that haven’t been addressed,” said McKeachie, insisting her group’s opposition is not borne out of NIMBY-ism (the “Not in my Backyard” attitude), but rather from a concern for the beaches and water.

Those concerns may become irrelevant if the industry can’t stay afloat.

UBC marine biologist Dr. Curtis Suttle has been studying the “large mortality events” affecting B.C. farmed shellfish.

“We don’t have a great understanding of what is going on,” he said.

Ocean acidity is a likely factor, with intrusions of very acidic water from deep below the surface making it difficult for some species to form adequate shells.

“The problem is probably not just acidity by itself,” said Suttle. “Stressful conditions make the shellfish more susceptible to disease, and different water masses come in with different pathogens.”

Suttle and a fellow scientist from the University of Victoria have applied to the federal government for funding to put together an international team to examine the problem.

“We want to see if there are particular scallops that are more resistant,” he said. “We can’t change ocean circulation, but we hope there’s a way to have a sustainable shellfish industry here.”

For Saunders, it’s all about finding a scallop “survivor.”

“We’re hoping we can identify and breed something that is resistant. Something that could be the foundation for the industry again.”

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