On the morning of June 4, residents of Denman Island woke up to 70 shellfish trays and various other shellfish equipment littered over a kilometre of their coastline.
In normal circumstances, the owner of this equipment would easily be traceable through a tag or brand that displays their licence information.
In the event of a loss of equipment, the owner would be notified and required to take responsibility for cleaning up the scene.
However, in this particular case, no brand nor tag was present on the gear. Therefore, no one could be directly held accountable for this environmental hazard.
Former shellfish grower Edina Johnston expressed her concern regarding this situation in a letter published in the Record on June 9.
“Three days later, the stacks are still grinding away in the tideline creating more microplastics to be ingested by everything from the oysters they market to humpback whales,” decried Johnston.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) enforced a new regulation, as of April 1, 2023, that all shellfish growers are required by law to clearly identify their aquaculture equipment with their license information.
DFO senior director of aquaculture management Brenda McCorquodale highlighted that this new regulation should already be respected by licence holders.
“That amendment came into place in 2021, but we did give people two years to be able to understand and prepare themselves to be able to comply with the new regulation,” said McCorquodale.
Fishery officers and DFO staff are patrolling and monitoring the coastal regions of B.C. to ensure that all shellfish growers are acting in compliance with those new conditions.
If the DFO is notified that a farming operation is not in order with the new regulations, McCorquodale mentioned that officers have a “number of tools” at their disposal to deal with the situation.
In short, depending on the severity of the infraction, the DFO has a three-pronged approach to dealing with non-complying tenures: a warning, tickets, or charges.
Though McCorquodale recognized that this task is time-consuming, she mentioned that there is no excuse for shellfish growers to not be in accordance, as of today, with the amendment since it was written in their licence two years ago.
“Over the last two years, the department really tried to work collaboratively with the industry and with the B.C. Shellfish Growers Association (BCSGA) to make sure that there were options available for folks,” said McCorquodale.
When presented with the situation that happened at Denman Island, McCorquodale said that she would take the time needed to investigate this specific incident. The Record has yet to hear from her.
Executive director of BCSGA Nico Prins agreed with McCorquodale’s point of view that shellfish licence holders should respect this new regulation.
He added that those responsible for debris found in B.C. waters should take ownership of their lost equipment and pick up their debris.
Prins stressed that cases of negligence and non-compliance are isolated incidents.
Prins told the Record that the clean-up of the incident was carried out by an employee of Fanny Bay Oysters - a private tenure that is not associated with the grower responsible for the incident.
The BCSGA’s role in the industry is to inform and provide the necessary resources needed by farmers to comply with the license requirements.
That said, he does question the amount of time aquafarmers were given to update their equipment.
Prins highlighted that in Baynes Sound alone, around 400,000 individual stacks of trays needed to be tagged.
Prins added that more than being a time-related issue, it has been challenging in the past year to simply have access to tagging and branding equipment.
“There are two DFO-authorized suppliers and they are on the East Coast,” noted Prins. “Administratively speaking, it is very difficult for these gear tag suppliers on the East Coast to cater to 460 individual applications. So administratively they’re not set up for it.”
Moreover, beyond DFO-authorized suppliers’ difficulty to meet shellfish farmers’ demand, Prins highlighted that the pandemic disrupted the branding and tagging operations.
“The majority of the industry was still in COVID lockdown for a big portion of the time so it was really challenging to get any staff working in person,” said Prins. “Unfortunately, I hate throwing them under the bus, but it was a bit of a failure from DFO to identify or communicate the appropriate tag suppliers for instance.
“Once we implemented the program and it took us about five months to establish a supply chain between the tag suppliers that are authorized by DFO and ourselves to act as a subsidiary. In reality, we had functional operations in terms of getting access to branding equipment and getting tags in October of 2022. That essentially left five months of time frame to get the equipment and get tagging.”
Mentioning his concern about the DFO’s time frame, Prins estimated that the industry should be fully respecting this new rule before this upcoming winter.
Despite delays experienced by some members of the industry, Prins admitted that most licence holders are already up to par with the DFO’s requirements.
“We know that the industry should do better in terms of managing debris and I’m pretty sure that is where the industry is going,” said Prins. “The sad part is that a very small portion of the industry is non-diligent, in terms of managing the debris, is pulling down the entire industry.”
If members of the public or shellfish growers observe that infractions are taking place at a tenure, they are invited by DFO to phone the Observe Record Report line at 1-800-465-4336.