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Deep Bay’s seaweed harvest an emotional issue

RDN director Bill Veenhof stands amidst a beach full of mazzaella japonica, a type of seaweed that’s been stirring up a lot of concern in Deep Bay lately.  - CANDACE WU PHOTO
RDN director Bill Veenhof stands amidst a beach full of mazzaella japonica, a type of seaweed that’s been stirring up a lot of concern in Deep Bay lately.
— image credit: CANDACE WU PHOTO

CANDACE WU

news@pqbnews.com

Deep Bay's Greg Boulton said he'll turn to civil disobedience to protect his beloved shoreline, now occupied with track vehicles and workers hauling mounds of beach cast away.

"If we don't stop it now we're in trouble," said Boulton. "We've been raping the planet long enough."

Boulton's source of frustration is the ongoing seaweed harvest in his Deep Bay community.

The sought-after resource is called mazzaella japonica, a type of seaweed seemingly abundant on many beaches where it carpets the shoreline entangled in what is known as wracks.

In 2006 the provincial government started a multi-year pilot project "to explore the viability of an ongoing harvest" according to a Sept. 11 press release issued by the Ministry of Agriculture, but a committed group of scientists is concerned about the environmental impact.

The project targets wracks, primarily to extract carrageenans which are found in Deep Bay's red tinged seaweed lining the beachfront.

The Ministry of Agriculture's senior biologist Gary Caine, who works for the B.C. Government's Food Safety and Inspection Branch, explains carrageenans are used for their gelling, thickening and stabilizing properties, and are found in anything from pharmaceuticals to yogurt.

Due to its wide array of commercial use, it could be one of B.C.'s biggest untapped industries.

"The carrogeenan market is worth close to $700 million worldwide," said Caine.

So in an effort to cash in on the crop, the B.C. government issued two mazzaella japonica harvest licences valid Sept. 15, 2013 to Feb. 15, 2014. According to their press release, licence holders Stormy Shores Sea Products and Pacific Marine Plants are each entitled to 300 metric tonnes of harvest on a five-kilometre stretch of Deep Bay's shoreline.

"It's a resource that deserves exploration," said Caine.

However, local residents aren't quite sold on seaweed.

Regional District of Nanaimo director Bill Veenhof, who represents the area, said his constituents are up in arms about the project.

"It's an emotional issue around here," said Veenhof, who added there was no public consultation with residents before the Ministry of Agriculture issued the licences, sparking outrage from a community that feels largely left in the dark.

"People just woke up one day and found vehicles driving up and down the shore," said Veenhof.

Last October, approximately 50 residents took to the beach to protest against the seaweed harvest. Later in the year, the Qualicum Bay Lighthouse hosted a well-attended public meeting regarding the same issue.

Veenhof said a big part of the problem is that there has been little science-based research conducted by the provincial government speaking to the ecological effects of seaweed harvesting.

In response, Caine said the Ministry has partially funded a University of Victoria graduate student to conduct a three-year research project looking into the ecological effects of commercial seaweed harvesting. The report is currently underway and slated for completion in 2015. The report's author has said she will not comment on the issue until her study is complete.

But a group of retired biologists and research scientists refuse to wait for answers.

A 36-page study released last year, led by former Fisheries and Oceans research scientist Ian Birtwell, is critical of the harvest.

"Seaweeds are fundamentally of high ecological importance," stated the report's authors. "Their removal whether while living or dead will have an ecological impact."

It goes on to say that seaweeds are a "vital component of the marine ecosystem" as they sustain aquatic organisms "including those that support valuable commercial, recreational and Aboriginal finfish and shellfish fisheries."

According to the report, the wracks of seaweed being harvested provide nourishment to an array of marine life including surf smelt, sand lance and herring. Additionally, a number of other species such as sea lions, otters and eagles rely on finding their prey in the beach cast.

The study said seaweed "has a direct influence on those organisms higher in the food chain."

In its conclusion, the report claims there is a "scientific basis for concern."

Among its many recommendations are a suggestion to establish an agency to identify potential future impacts; restricting sensitive areas from harvesting; and creating a moratorium on licensing until the ecological impacts of the seaweed harvest have been identified and assessed.

Caine takes the study with a grain of salt.

"It's just a biological review," he said, of the study. "They've reviewed the literature and haven't done any research or provided any scientific data to the area."

As for now, the seaweed harvest carries on.

Caine said he could not comment on whether or not new licenses would be issued for the 2014 harvest season, however, he did offer: "at the end of the day it's the people who want to participate (licence holders) who will decide if it is viable or not."

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