Seaweed harvest to continue in Deep Bay

The Ministry of Agriculture announced Friday three licences - one more than last year - have been granted

A controversial seaweed harvest in Deep Bay will continue for at least another season.

The Ministry of Agriculture announced Friday three licences — one more than last year — have been granted to harvest Mazzaella japonica in the Deep Bay/Bowser area.

Mazzaella japonica is a resource contained in the wracks of seaweed lining the coast of Baynes Sound. From Mazzaella japonica, harvesters may extract carrageenans, valued for their gelling, thickening and stabilizing properties and commonly found in cosmetic and food products.

It is estimated the carrageenan market is worth $700 million worldwide.

The announcement fuels an ongoing debate between those who oppose the harvest fearing the removal of seaweed will lead to environmental degradation and those who support the harvest for its economic potential. Moreover, local and provincial politicians have called for more dialog between the ministry and residents, some of whom feel largely left in the dark about a project taking over a five-kilometre stretch along their beachfront.

Former Fisheries and Oceans research scientist and longtime Bowser resident Ian Birtwell said the news was “disappointing” but “not surprising.”

Birtwell is best known for leading a research effort critical of the seaweed harvest. He released a 36-page study in 2013 confirming the seaweed being harvested off the coast of Deep Bay “has a direct influence on those organisms higher in the food chain.” The report concluded there is a “scientific basis for concern.”

“The concerns from people — aside from scientific issues —who are directly impacted by the harvest have not been addressed (by the ministry), in fact they’ve been ignored,” Birtwell told The NEWS. “Obviously there is no real democratic process in terms of this seaweed harvest.”

However, the ministry’s senior biologist Gary Caine said “we aren’t required to do public consultation — that’s not consistent with exercising our legislation.”

Caine added the government has taken into account letters received from residents as well as information gathered on site during last year’s harvest. He said the new licences include conditions for the harvest to “fit in better with the social scene (in Deep Bay) and which are “consistent with conservative managment processes.”

Caine explained the new licences limit the harvest to daylight hours on weekdays between Sept. 15, 2014 and Feb. 15, 2015, as opposed to last year’s regulations which allowed for harvesting seven days a week, from dusk until dawn during the season. Moreover, he said harvesters are required to immediately cease harvesting efforts in the event herring eggs are observed, a herring fishery is opened or annual bird migrations occur in the area.

Jason Rose who runs Stormy Shores Sea Products, one of the three harvesting companies granted a licence, was happy to hear Friday’s announcement.

“I’m happy with the news,” said Rose. “I’m relieved to see they (the ministry) are keeping it (the harvest) relatively small as we continue to do studies on it and learn more.”

Rose said the new licence regulations will shift the way he conducts his operation but called the changes “reasonable restrictions.”

“I can understand the need to keep the local residents happy and give them peace and quiet,” he said.

But despite the enhanced licence regulations, Alberni-Pacific Rim MLA Scott Fraser called the ministry’s stance on the seaweed harvest “unacceptable.”

“The role of government needs to be to listen to the people of this region who are the stewards of their area,” said Fraser. “In my opinion the failure to even consider those public concerns is potentially going to cause conflict.”

Fraser said he is disappointed the work conducted by himself, RDN director Bill Veenhof, residents in the area and local scientists has been “largely ignored.”

“They (the government) are creating an environment of confrontation,” he said. “I’m not blaming the (seaweed harvesting) companies — it’s the government’s role to make sure they aren’t pitting business against the community.”