Dragons to the rescue of shellfish?

Parksville man is going on Dragon's Den with a plan to farm a heartier oyster in wake of alarms over shellfish industry's future

A local man who will face the Dragons may have the answer to a beast of a problem facing local shellfish producers.

An industry that’s worth $32 million to the B.C. economy and employs 1,000 people — half of them in Baynes Sound — is in jeopardy due to high acidity levels in the ocean.

“We’ve been pushing this alarm for years about ocean acidity,” said B.C. Shelfish Growers Association (BCSGA) executive director Roberta Stevenson. “It’s well documented and it’s a huge threat to the ability of shellfish to reproduce.”

In Tuesday’s edition of The NEWS, Island Scallops CEO Rob Saunders said his company has lost 10 million animals — all of the seeded scallops it put into the ocean in 2012, 2011 and 2010 (see story at pqbnews.com). Saunders said the company has lost $10 million and has had to lay off 30 per cent of its workforce.

Enter Mike Thurber. The Parksville man has been accepted in his bid to pitch a product to the panel of the popular CBC Television program, The Dragon’s Den. His product? An oyster that he says can handle the increased acidity levels of the Georgia Strait. Actually, Thurber’s plan has a back-to-the-future theme. Thurber would like to farm the Olympia oyster, a native species. Shellfish producers on the Island almost exclusively produce the Japanese oyster.

The CBC’s Hannah James confirmed Thurber has been invited to Toronto for the filming of Dragon’s Den season nine in April. James said the season will begin airing in October.

The BCSGA’s Stevenson said there are good reasons the producers have been focussing on Japanese oysters, and she said it’s not like they are new to the area.

“We’ve been growing these Japanese oysters in B.C. for over 100 years,” she said. “They grow big and they grow fast and they are pretty tough. But good luck to him (Thurber) — the more the merrier.”

Stevenson said the BCSGA is hoping to convince the federal government to fund research into developing a new variety of oyster than can thrive in the new PH-level reality of the Georgia Strait.

“Canada has not been as forthcoming on ocean acidity research as other countries,” she said. “It’s going to be a really expensive project . . . trying to figure out how to make a heartier animal.”

Stevenson also said it’s time the public showed its support for the shellfish producers. She said her growers hear and read a lot of negative feedback about the farm nature of what they do.

“The public needs to be pretty thankful they have food to eat out front” said Stevenson. “We need support, not criticism. And we need to focus our research — the ocean is changing and it’s changing pretty quickly.”

She also said the change in PH levels caused by higher CO2 in the water is not a cyclical occurance.

“This is forever, this is the new reality,” said Stevenson, whose group has been actively fighting against the proposed Raven coal mine near Buckley Bay. “As if we don’t have enough problems.”