A “beef” in last Friday’s Comox Valley Echo has sparked a new flurry of discussion about two proposed sea cucumber farms in Baynes Sound.
The anonymous comment ran in the Echo’s “Beefs and Bouquets” on Aug. 3 and reignited a public discussion about the controversial applications to research, farm and harvest sea cucumbers over 262 hectares in Baynes Sound.
It read, “Wondering why the Comox Valley Project Watershed organization is not actively supporting the Friends of Baynes Sound, as part of their mandate for Baynes Sound Stewardship? All environment groups should be concerned about increased netting on the sea bed in Baynes Sound and the increased commercialization of this scenic and important ecosystem.”
Just days later the Echo ran a response from Paul A. Horgen, chair of the Comox Valley Project Watershed Society board of directors.
“Project Watershed believes that the sea cucumber proposal is based on good science and sustainability and is designed to maintain an environmental balance within the marine habitat and to contribute to the conservation of Baynes Sound,” he wrote.
In an interview, Horgen confirmed Project Watershed’s support of the research portion of the proposal, provided a strict set of conditions are imposed and enforced.
Those conditions are laid out in a document submitted to the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, the body responsible for granting the tenure. The document, submitted by the Comox Valley Conservation Strategy Community (CVCS) partnership, outlines the conditional support of 20 different partner organizations. Those organizations include Project Watershed, the Comox Valley Land Trust, the Tsolum River Restoration Society and the Comox Valley Environmental Council.
“We see [the proposal] as sustainable, put together by people that are scientifically competent,” Horgen said on behalf of Project Watershed. “I am much more concerned personally about the Raven Coal Mine and the Enbridge Pipeline.”
One day after Horgen’s letter was published in the Echo, CVCS published the full text of its submission to the Ministry on its website.
“The applicant should be issued a license and tenure for the period of time required to carry out the research phase of the proposal,” said CVCS’s letter. “When and if the applicant decides to apply for a commercial harvesting license they should have to reapply for tenure. The goal of the research phase is to determine how an environmentally sustainable and economically viable sea cucumber aquaculture business can be operated. By reapplying for both a commercial license and tenure a public process with agency oversight would be initiated. A full review of the license and tenure once the applicant establishes how they will operate a commercial venture should include the results of publicly available peer reviewed research from the research phase. Peer reviewed research should be a key component of the agency review process.”
CVCS also requires that a “precautionary principle” be applied, meaning that in the absence of scientific knowledge of the impact of large-scale sea cucumber farming, conservation measures must be taken to prevent or mitigate any possible harm. Specifically, the group calls for a number of actions including the exclusive use of drug and disease-free sea cucumbers grown from local wild stock, the preservation of local ecosystems with no net loss of the flora and fauna already present in the tenure area and the use of predator controls that will not impede wild animals’ access to their natural food sources or cause harm to predators. In addition, CVCS calls for independent third party monitoring of environmental impacts as well as peer review of the research completed by the applicants.
The applications for tenure have not yet been approved but they are currently before the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.
In contrast to the local expressions of support, a number of commercial fishing organizations are opposed to the proposals, stating environmental and financial concerns. The Herring Industry Advisory Board, the B.C. Seafood Alliance and the Underwater Harvesters Association have all sent submissions to the Ministry outlining their misgivings. All three named the sheer size of the proposed farms, combined with the unknown environmental impacts, as a top concern.
“From our perspective, [the applications] cover a very large area that is important to commercial fisheries,” said Christina Burridge of the B.C. Seafood Alliance. “There has been no assessment of feasibility or environmental impact – it is highly speculative in nature.”
She added that Baynes Sound is vital herring spawning territory and that herring play a key role in the wider health of the coastal marine ecosystem and the commercial fishery.
Lorena Hamer of the Herring Industry Advisory Board echoed Burridge’s concerns.
“It is an extremely large footprint,” she said. “There are strong biological questions. The area is one of the top spawning areas on the coast…It could change the water quality or the oxygen content of Baynes Sound. The impact on the ecosystem is unknown.”
Added Michelle James of the Underwater Harvesters Association, “It is a very large area and there is not a proven track record.”
She added that the organization is not completely opposed to the idea, but they would rather see the research conducted on a smaller scale before it is expanded to cover over 250 hectares.
She also said there is some concern in the industry that the large footprint will simply give the proponents freedom to harvest the wild population while keeping commercial fisheries out.
“Aquaculture needs to be aquaculture, not just a way to gain access to wild stocks,” said James.
The Ministry is currently considering the proposals and it is not known when a decision on the matter will be made. To read CVCS’s entire submission go towww.cvconservationstrategy.org.