Why B.C.’s oyster farmers are struggling to stay afloat

Oysters account for 80 per cent of B.C.’s farmed shellfish by weight

Warming seas and onerous rules are raising concerns for B.C.’s bivalve farmers

On a typical Saturday morning, Steve Pocock loads up his white minivan with stacked ice trays full of manila clams, mussels and oysters before heading out for the five-hour drive, punctured by two ferry crossings, from his home on Quadra Island to a farmers’ market on Vancouver’s west side. He’s one of the few still making that weekly trek from the islands. Small producers like Pocock—who make up the majority of B.C.’s 300 shellfish operations—are struggling just to stay afloat these days, faced with both a shortage of baby oysters (known as “seed”) and a burdensome regulatory environment that favours large players who can afford to wait out the multiyear approval process to operate.

Nowhere is the pain being felt more acutely than in the oyster trade. Oysters account for 80 per cent of all of B.C.’s farmed shellfish by weight and around 40 per cent of its value, with the small-but-world-famous fishery (worth some $33 million annually) a mainstay of the Gulf Island and Vancouver Island economies. B.C.’s oyster farms saw production fall by 12.5 per cent from 2012 to 2013 (from 7,200 tonnes to 6,300 tonnes), even as the landed value of that product increased from $10 million to $12 million—largely thanks to the growing popularity of oyster bars in North America and a developing taste for the bivalve among a burgeoning middle class in China and Southeast Asia.

B.C.’s shellfish aquaculture harvests (by wholesale value, 2013)

Oysters: $24.6 million

Geoducks + Manila Clams: $11.2 million

Scallops: $5.3 million

0.15%: Percentage of oyster seed that survives to maturity

Those flagging production numbers, however, are only going to get worse with the gradual rise in ocean temperatures. “There is excellent evidence from labs that oyster larvae don’t do well when seawater is acidified,” says Chris Hall, associate professor of zoology at UBC. That seawater—acidified by high concentrations of carbon dioxide and pushed from the depths of inlets and sounds by increasingly intense summer upswells—stunts the shell-forming process, slowing the oyster’s development and, in some cases, starving them to death. With climate change, those upswells are becoming more frequent.

The industry imports more than 90 per cent of its seed from hatcheries in Washington and Oregon, which have largely found workarounds to the acidifying seawater. “We don’t fill the tanks when the north wind comes,” says Margaret Barette, executive director of the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association. But the seed is expensive—according to the Centre for Shellfish Research in Nanaimo, only half of growers have enough seed to fill out their tenure and meet projected demand.

For many growers, however, the biggest challenge they face these days is not environmental but regulatory. Prior to 2012, B.C.’s ministry of agriculture managed the industry’s rafts and processing plants. A court decision in 2009 struck down that arrangement, granting Fisheries and Oceans Canada (the federal authority known colloquially as DFO) responsibility as regulator. “When the province gave away finfish farming, they also gave away shellfish farming,” says Roberta Stevenson, executive director of the B.C. Shellfish Growers Association, who counts at least 12 federal, provincial and local bodies with some say over green-lighting a shellfish farm.

The overlapping regulatory bodies are confusing, to say the least. DFO oversees licensing and environmental reporting; Transport Canada reviews applications for rafts and buoys to ensure they don’t make the water un-navigable; the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has jurisdiction over shellfish sanitation and processing; the provincial government is responsible for authorizing lease arrangements of aquatic Crown lands; and then, in most cases, proponents have to clear their proposals with municipal zoning offices and local First Nations. As Stevenson sees it, the complex rules are turning people away from the business: “We don’t see B.C. attracting new investment because investors come here and they see the extreme regulation.”

Many industry observers point to B.C.’s $475-million farmed salmon fishery as both a model and a cautionary tale. Five companies—only one of which is headquartered in Canada—now control 80 per cent of that fishery’s production. With slimmer margins than the wild fisheries, high upfront costs and a labyrinthine regulatory approval process, the fishery proved unattractive to traditional lenders in the late ’90s, while the regulatory regime left local salmon farms unable to compete. Eventually, all local players were squeezed out.

“British Columbians should be proud that B.C. has water clean enough to grow shellfish,” says Stevenson. “Our growers have invested a lifetime of work and saving in making their farms. We can’t just give up.”