A retired government biologist wants to see Deep Bay's seaweed harvest halted.
Ross Peterson has been calling for a moratorium on the controversial harvest since 2013, when the biological review Seaweed Harvesting on the East Coast of Vancouver Island B.C. was first released.
Peterson is part of the team of experts who prepared the review, which has fueled an ongoing debate between those who oppose the harvest fearing environmental degradation and those who support the harvest for its economic potential.
He called it "a mistake" for the government to give out harvesting licences in the first place with a "lack of scientific understanding" about the impacts of removing large quantities of seaweed from the beach.
In 2007, the Ministry of Agriculture started a pilot project issuing harvesting licences. Seaweed harvesters are after a red algae called Mazzaella japonica, believed to be a foreign species rich in carrageenans — a compound used as a gelling and thickening agent in an array of products from cosmetics to pharmaceuticals. The carrageenan market is estimated to be worth $700 million worldwide.
"We're dealing with a new extractive industry in this province, and from an ecological point of view, our assessment of what has happened elsewhere with this industry shows we should proceed cautiously and understand the ecological nature before (harvesting) licences are issued," said Peterson.
Late last year, the ministry granted Vancouver Island University's Deep Bay Marine Field Station a contract to study the controversial seaweed harvest and research efforts are now underway. A final report is slated for completion by March 25.
But Peterson said the scope and time allotted to the research is "inefficient."
He said "you can't call it a formal impact study because of its narrow scope and length of time."
While Peterson admits VIU's research efforts are "a step in the right direction," he believes the harvest should be completely halted until a long term formal environmental assessment is undertaken — something that could take years.
"I'm not faulting their (VIU's) work, I'm faulting people's impression that this is more than what it is," he said, criticizing the government for prematurely issuing seaweed harvesting licences.
"A lot of people could have undertaken this (a formal environmental assessment) but apparently that was never a consideration by the province who seemed anxious to get a new industry underway," said Peterson. "Perhaps it was because of jobs, revenue, I really have no idea ... but their decision wasn't science-based and it should have been."
Bill Veenhof, who represents Deep Bay/Bowser, said he doesn't want to see the harvest, or VIU's study, come to a stand still at this point in the game.
"I think it's a huge step forward from where we were three or four years ago," he told The NEWS. "I don't think I'd support a moratorium, I want to see the harvest in place while they (VIU) are doing their research."
Project lead Brian Kingzett said a moratorium would defeat the study's purpose.
"We're trying to study the harvest, and what the effect of the harvest is, if there's a moratorium there is no point in doing the study," he said, adding that the harvest is "proceeding cautiously."
Moreover, Kingzett said there's another narrative to consider.
"This might be an invasive seaweed," he said. "As researchers we are getting interested in what the distribution and volume of this alien seaweed is, and this is something we will try to study in the long term."
Kingzett said as of now VIU has only secured one year of funding, but that's not to say the government won't continue to grant contracts to the university in the future.
"It might be a bit pre mature to call this study 'short term,'" he said. "I'm absolutely supportive of a multi year study and I suspect we will spend more energy on researching the influence of seaweed beyond this study."