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A beach on B.C.’s west coast is measured for shellfish mortality. Photo: Dan Dyble

Climate change forcing shellfish farmers to shift practices

Without government aid, some small farmers feel “pushed out”

By Jack Rabb , in City , on November 23, 2021

Shellfish farmers along British Columbia’s ecologically sensitive coastline were slammed by this summer’s heat waves. Now, some small farms are being forced to pivot to adapt to what could be the new normal.

But, although they direly need to adapt their methods to avoid this happening again, they’re concerned they don’t have the means to make the transition.

Intertidal harvesters, those who pick wild shellfish from their lease when the tide is out, were the worst affected. Some reported more than 90 per cent crop mortality.

Annette Lessard and her husband Troy Hutchings farm an oyster lease by themselves in Okeover Inlet, 30 minutes northwest of Powell River, and one of the hardest-hit areas. About 700,000 animals, or 75 per cent of their crop, died in a matter of days this summer.

“It was absolutely devastating,” Lessard said. “To watch and to see it actually happen. It was very, very surreal. There’s no words to describe it, actually. Except it was devastating.”

Hutchings estimated that they could lose as much as $200,000 over the next three years, a reflection of the time it takes from seed to harvest an oyster.

Lessard and Hutchings’ operation relied exclusively on intertidal harvesting. The worst of the heatwave occurred at low tide, and their beach was exposed to direct sunlight nearly all day.

“There was nothing we could do,” Lessard said.

And this is not going to be a one-time event, says a research scientist.

“We know that the water temperature on our coastlines is slowly increasing. But the scary part is the frequency of these warm events,” said Timothy Green, the Canada research chair in shellfish health and genomics based at Vancouver Island University.

Because they are trying to prepare for that future, Lessard and Hutchings are planning on shifting towards deepwater aquaculture, growing shellfish underneath rafts so that they remain submerged in water at all times.

However, rafts aren’t cheap, and neither are the seeds needed for raft-based aquaculture.

Between COVID and climate change, shellfish farmers have already been receiving economic gut punches for two years, and this pivot could prove too costly without government aid that has not been forthcoming.

The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans stated in an email to The Thunderbird that financial aid is outside of their purview. B.C.’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries is considering providing aid, but that’s contingent on their finding a surplus in their budget, which is still undetermined.

The shellfish industry is trying to adapt rapidly. Green is working to effectively climate-proof Pacific oysters by selectively breeding them to be more disease resistant and generally hardier in the face of mounting environmental stressors; Hutchings himself has made a prototype of an eco-friendly aquaculture raft that pumps water through its shellfish using solar power.

But it might be too little, too late for the mom-and-pop farms.

Without any aid, small-time intertidal shellfish harvesters, traditionally a very diverse group of people with a minuscule carbon footprint, could soon be a dying breed. “I feel like I’m getting pushed out,” Hutchings said.