Shellfish aquaculture worries islanders

The poorly regulated shellfish industry is the most visible example of government failure to do the right thing for Gulf Islands shorelines and marine environment.

The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), aided and abetted by the province, is hell-bent to exploit sea-life at the expense of the environment, Islands Trust’s mandate, and residents’ quality of life and property values.

Two rubber-boot clad locals dig for geoducks on Denman Island

Coming to a beach near you? Geoduck aquaculture has started in earnest on Denman Island. Here, in mid-June 2014, PVC pipes for the cultivation of intertidal geoducks are installed using a power auger. Despite protests by the Association of Denman Island Marine Stewards and GIA, the federal government appears determined to allow geoduck farming across the Gulf Islands.

So far, the battle site is the 90 percent of Denman Island’s western shore that’s under shellfish tenure. Company vehicles drive on the beaches. Tons of industry debris are left each year for residents to clean up. Beaches are bermed, water courses altered, and   anti-predator netting snares wild life and destroys bird habitat. After the Fraser River estuary, the Denman/Baynes Sound area is the  most important waterfowl habitat in BC and an important area for herring spawning and the growth of salmonids and other fish species.

This scene could spread to other islands if the DFO succeeds in opening BC’s coast, including the shorelines of Salt Spring, Galiano, Gabriola, and other major islands, to geoduck aquaculture. It is promoting the geoduck as “one of the most economically prosperous and environmentally sustainable fisheries on the west coast.” One company owner says geoduck aquaculture could become a billion dollar industry in the Salish Sea.

The geoduck is a saltwater clam that in rare cases measures up to 2 metres in length and 7.5 kilograms in weight. It sells for a reported $150 a pound in China, its largest market.
One feature of geoduck farming is the vertical installation of 20,000 to 40,000 PVC pipes, each about 12 centimetres in diameter and 25 centimetres long, per acre into beach sediment for predator protection for the first 18 to 24 months of a 7 to 10 year crop cycle. PVC pipe breaks down in a marine environment, releasing toxins absorbed by zooplanktons and bio-magnifying their harm as they move up the food chain. Vinyl chloride in PVC is a human carcinogen. GIA asks how the DFO can honestly reconcile its enthusiasm for the geoduck industry with its legal duty to maintain a sustainable marine ecology and protect endangered species such as orcas?

The industry has proven highly controversial in Washington’s Puget Sound — it has about a 15-year head start over BC — because of its damage to the ecology and other facets of the economy, such as tourism. Many of the more than 225 shellfish sites there converted to commercial use without shoreline permits, public comment or environmental review.

In the fall of 2013 GIA sponsored a public talking tour by the Association for Denman Island Marine Stewards  on Gabriola, Thetis, Salt Spring, Galiano, Mayne and Pender Islands. Neither GIA or ADIMS oppose the industry per se; our complaint concerns its large scale, lack of government regulation, disrespect for the marine environment, and planned expansion of geoduck aquaculture to the rest of the Gulf Islands. We’re also concerned that owners of existing tenures won’t have to apply to the DFO or notify local government or the public when they switch to geoduck. The Gulf Islands Alliance supports the Denman group’s bid to have geoduck aquaculture banned in the Islands Trust Area, similar to an existing ban on fin fish farms.

The Denman case exposes the Islands Trust’s weakness in enforcing its environmental mandate when senior governments exploit resource-based business opportunities that occur on the islands. We’ve seen it forestry, and now shellfish aquaculture. Licenses and tenures are granted contrary to existing zoning and wise environmental practice. The industry successfully thumbs its nose at the Trust which acknowledges the Denman-Baynes Sound shellfish industry is unsustainable and, in part, illegal.  The Trust Policy Statement’s vow to protect its marine areas has been muted by happenings in Baynes Sound.

A central objective of good planning, the separation of incompatible uses, has been violated on Denman. And yet Trust planners report that even if proper prohibitions were adopted by the local trust committee, “by-law enforcement of non-compliance would be difficult if not impossible given the predicted pressures from (the province) and Department of Fisheries … and the high chance of creating conflict (with them).” Denman’s local trust committee retained a consultant who mostly confirmed the planners’ position and also recommended hiring a lawyer “to address driving on the beach and beach modification in a manner that does not interfere with the constitutional jurisdiction of Canada in managing the shellfish aquaculture licenses.”

Hardly a confidence-builder for other Gulf Islanders who have taken for granted that their beaches are off limits to such intrusions.

Here’s GIA’s letter to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans

April 19, 2014
Jennifer Mollins, Senior Coordinator,
Shellfish Aquaculture Management,
Fisheries Management Branch — Pacific Region,
Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Gulf Islands Alliance response to the DFO Draft Geoduck Management Plan

Dear Ms Mollins

This is to request the DFO exclude the Islands Trust islands from its geoduck aquaculture management plan at least until there’s a full independent public review of its potential impacts on the islands’ natural and social environments.

As a priority, the review would take into account the unique nature and significance of the Islands Trust Act and the area of its jurisdiction. Unlike all traditional forms of local governments in Canada and beyond, the 40-year-old Trust was set up to ‘preserve and protect’ the remarkable natural environment of BC’s beautiful Gulf Islands. The importance of the Act’s environmental priority has been confirmed by the courts and in an expert legal opinion commissioned by the Gulf Islands Alliance.

The Trust is not alone in treasuring and trying to protect this area. Its boundaries are partially overlapped by the proposed 1,400 square kilometre Southern Strait of Georgia National Marine Conservation Area Reserve that Parks Canada says is “among the most productive marine ecosystems in the world (and) also among the finest areas globally for scuba diving, whale watching, sea kayaking and coastal cruising.” This federal agency aims to “conserve this vital marine ecosystem while allowing human uses to continue in an ecologically sustainable manner. It is also an exciting opportunity to create a legacy for future generations — a legacy of healthy, productive marine ecosystems that benefits both local residents and visitors.”

The DFO draft geoduck plan makes no mention of Islands Trust, Local Trust Committees or the Trust’s Policy Statement that urges senior governments to honour the Trust Act by protecting areas that thrive with naturally occurring shellfish populations and other marine life. The draft contains no provision to invite any affected local government to join with federal and provincial agencies in the ‘harmonized’ review process for issuing shellfish licences and tenures. The Trust already insists that finfish farms should not be permitted in its marine waters and aquaculture should only be permitted “if compatible with maintenance of ecosystems and community character.”

Compatible with maintenance of ecosystems?

The Trust describes intertidal habitats as “biodiversity hotspots … home to hundreds of marine species…that connect foodwebs from the land to the ocean abyss.” But present commercial shellfish monocultures on the western shores of Denman Island and Baynes Sound in the Trust Area are incompatible with the maintenance of beach ecosystems there. Further escalation and expansion of these unsustainable practices to other Trust islands under the proposed geoduck plan would provoke well-founded opposition by Gulf Islanders and other concerned Canadians. The DFO’s description of the geoduck as “one of the most … environmentally sustainable fisheries on the west coast” is held in some disbelief. Last fall the Gulf Islands Alliance sponsored a series of public meetings on six major Gulf Islands by the Association for Denman Island Marine Stewards who told of company vehicles driving on beaches, tons of industry debris that residents clean up each year, the disruptive berming and altering of water courses, and anti-predator netting that renders critical bird habitat unavailable to birds for feeding and can snare other wildlife. And recently some Gabriola Island residents complained that silt stirred up by the use of stingers to harvest wild geoducks is destroying “kelp, starfish, snails and jellyfish” in the Whalebone area.

Looking south, many Gulf Islanders are alarmed and demanding that the ecological damage and bitter legal citizen/industry conflicts caused by geoduck aquaculture in Washington State must not be repeated here. The Case Inlet Shoreline Association of Puget Sound says the shellfish industry and commercially-biased government regulators use out-of-context self serving pseudo science to justify injurious practices and deny obvious environmental damage. Among other wrongs, the Association says the shellfish industry causes the loss of biodiversity, the depletion of native species, the introduction and spread of alien organisms, the killing and hazing of shorebirds, the use of chemical poisons to kill native burrowing shrimp and the disruption of fish habitat. It dismisses as “false and misleading industry propaganda” claims that shellfish aquaculture provides positive ecological functions and improves water quality. It says the geoduck industry removes and destroys eelgrass, sand dollars, and starfish and further threatens endangered salmon species and bald eagles.

The Association also points out the high environmental cost of using polyvinyl chloride (PVC) tubes. They weigh in at 75 tons per acre of geoduck aquaculture. PVC pipe breaks down in a marine environment, releasing toxins absorbed by zooplanktons and bio-magnifying their harm as they move up the food chain. Vinyl chloride in PVC is a human carcinogen. While like the Denman marine stewards the US group doesn’t oppose a well-managed and regulated shellfish industry of limited scale, it does insist that the precautionary principle should be imposed until all the present unknown cumulative effects of the industry’s potential impacts are understood.

Compatible with community character?

Before intertidal geoduck aquaculture is imposed, Gulf Islanders must be afforded the same right of due process that’s applied to any proposed land use change. Separating incompatible uses is a pillar of desirable and humane planning. Because of unnecessary, deleterious effects on quality of life and property values, active industries and residences must be kept from each other’s doorstep. DFO’s list of licensing considerations, including adjacent land uses and ecological protection, offer little comfort to those who witness their unhindered violations. Allowing geoduck aquaculture in the intertidal zone directly in front of shoreline homes is an avoidable provocation. Most distressing, the draft plan allows owners of existing tenures to switch to geoduck cultivation without approval by any authority.

Being public property should not excuse senior governments from observing fair planning and zoning practices and seeking full and formal public input. There are many other legitimate, significant and competing interests evident in the Islands Trust marine areas, interests that should not be pre-empted by DFO. Important decisions such as introducing geoduck aquaculture to new areas — decisions that also have impacts on property tax revenues, tourism, recreation and other elements of the local economy — should be political and not assigned to the discretion of singularly-focused, unelected government agencies. An open review of the geoduck plan would uncover just how much islanders love their marine environment and surely lead to a better resolution. Because the multi-layers of marine area jurisdiction and the process of implementing change will be viewed by the general public as complicated and confusing and because changes to shoreline uses are more ‘in your face’ than other ‘out to sea’ fisheries initiatives, there’s a greater necessity and benefit for authorities to explain what and why the proposed change is for the public good. Or not.

The Gulf Islands Alliance is a non-profit independent grassroots group of residents from across the Gulf Islands dedicated to the letter and spirit of the preserve and protect mandate of the Islands Trust Act.