Shellfish industry trying to survive acidic seas

Island Scallops continues to employ innovative measures to keep its business alive after the death of 10 million animals earlier last year, says the company's CEO.

High acid levels in the waters around Parksville Qualicum Beach killed 10 million scallops and forced the local shellfish producer to scale operations back considerably.

Rob Saunders said this week the issue received international attention after the story appeared first in The NEWS, including some talk at a congressional hearing in the U.S. Saunders said his company is now taking scallops out of the ocean a year earlier than what was done in the past because the acid levels destroy the shells.

"The mortality is just too high to keep them in the water for one more year," said Saunders. "We've had to change the way we farm."

That means a smaller product, even though large Island Scallops were big sellers. It also means a different presentation in the market, he said.

"We're selling primarily live-in-the-shell product, but we're not sure if the consumer wants that product," said Saunders.

Saunders said last year the carbon dioxide levels had increased dramatically in the waters of the Georgia Strait, forcing the PH levels to 7.3 from their norm of 8.1 or 8.2. Island Scallops seeds its animals at its hatchery in Qualicum Bay and they are reared in the ocean in small net cages attached to horizontal "longlines," according to the company's website. The longlines are submerged about 10 metres  below the surface, in water about 30 metres deep.

From hatchery to harvest used to take about three years. Saunders said the company has lost all the scallops put in the ocean in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

“(The high acidity level means the scallops) can’t make their shells and they are less robust and they are susceptible to infection,” said Saunders, who also said this level of PH in the water is not something he’s seen in his 35 years of shellfish farming.

Saunders said Island Scallops and other shellfish producers continue to work with the DFO and scientists in an attempt to find species that can withstand the more acidic waters.

“We’re quite hopeful but we can’t afford to withstand those losses for very long.”

This is Island Scallops’ busiest time of the year, with 35 employees getting seed from the Qualicum Bay operation into the ocean.

“This is our busy time of year and we expect to put in the water five-to-six million scallops,” said Saunders. “We’ll see how they do.”

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