Woman, standing on a floating structure, working with a shellfish tray

Growers Perspective: Boats and Aquaculture in Gorge Harbour

On Monday March 6, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) closed the waters and intertidal foreshore of Deep Bay Harbour, on Vancouver Island, to oyster and scallop growers, due to ‘sanitary reasons.’ 

 Erik Lyon, owner operator of Rising Tide Shellfish on Cortes Island explained, “The problem is too many people  in too close a proximity to shellfish farms. You can’t have any shellfish destined for human consumption in  water where there’s any kind of a man-made dock, boat liveaboard or float house within 125 metres. That’s a setback that’s always been in place.” 

Photo courtesy Erik Lyon

“The US was considering a total ban on BC oysters. Luckily DFO was taking lab samples of oysters for a few weeks about a month back and in the end, we were deemed as acceptably clean. That ban didn’t go ahead, but in response to that threat of a ban on BC shellfish, I believe, the DFO is now going to stricter measures in terms of closing certain waterways  as growing sites.”

Lyon’s company is one of the 10 or so lease holders belonging to the Bee Islets Growers Corporation, in the centre of Gorge Harbour. 

“There’s millions of dollars worth of sustainably produced seafood coming out of that harbor every year. That’s jobs, small businesses, a whole way of life,” he said.

“My representatives at the BC Shellfish Growers Association tell us the industry is in decline here.” 

EL: “Why is that when we have this incredible ability to produce this high quality product that the worldwide demand for is super strong. When we talk to our processors about oyster orders coming up next week, all we ever hear is, can you send twice as much? The international demand for shellfish flesh is not being met, let alone the domestic demand.  We have this incredible resource, working with nature, producing this high value sustainable product, yet here we are just ‘shitting’ all over that opportunity.” 

According to Kristen Schofield-Sweet who, together with her partner John Shook, holds another Bee Islet lease, “The Gorge doesn’t flush well because it is such a narrow opening. The water doesn’t circulate with the same kind of vigour and charge that would be typical in a more open ocean area. So when you put a lot of boats in there, you put a lot of oysters in there, you put a lot of mussels in there – the water is just overwhelmed.” 

EL: “People come in the summer, they’re cruising and they anchor in the harbour.  Maybe they are a new liveaboard. They don’t know the place and)  they’ll anchor right up close to someone’s beach lease because  they’re trying to get into shallow water. They don’t even know about that 125 metres setback, and that’s not their fault that they don’t know.” 

“The DFO are becoming increasingly conservative with their closures to try and protect the industry, but they don’t have any power to do anything other than close down the operator – so that is their response.” 

Phil Allen, President of Bee Islets, added, “You cannot sell any shellfish from that lease while the boat is there.”

CC: So what do you do?  

KSS: “We can go ask them to move and they may, or may not.”

PA: “You just have to harass them. That’s the only option you’ve got. Say, ‘Look, I can’t operate while you are here. Could you please move?’”

EL: “We don’t have any safeguards to protect us from something as simple as a bunch of people living on their boats too close to our farm because there isn’t any government or regulatory body that has the teeth to enforce, remove, or in any way influence the conduct of the people who choose to live on a boat.”

“It’s highly risky for us because Environment Canada is taking note of  vessels that are in close proximity to the leases. They are GPSing  people’s position (where their boat is), and keeping track of that. If there’s a cumulative risk perceived by them, they will close areas as a precautionary thing – which is what they did in the west end of the Gorge.”  

KSS: “It wasn’t that the water testing was coming back negative, it’s that DFO decided there was simply too much traffic, too many boats so they closed that area, but there was no evidence that the water itself was fouled.” 

EL: “They said, ‘this is too much of a risk, we can’t control for this.’” 

PA: “There are more liveaboards now because the cost of living for a lot of people is too high and living on a boat is (relatively) cheap.” 

EL: “I know a lot of these people. A lot of these people are friends of mine.  That’s how I ended up on Cortes Island. We lived on a boat, we came up here, we had a baby, we started farming oysters, and one thing led to another.”

“Most, if not all of these people don’t have any insight into that regulatory world that we shellfish operators are living in. They come to a place like  Gorge Harbor, which is a protected waterway with good holding and easy access to amenities and etc. and they think they’re in Shangri-La. They don’t realize that there’s rules about proximity and the amount of traffic, etc.”

CC: Do you know how many liveaboards there are in Gorge Harbour?  

PA: “I would guess it’s in the region of a dozen.”

EL: “Just before I came over, I jotted down a list of how many it might be. Without really straining, I came up with 20 plus names. I’m not about to spread this list of names around or anything like that. A lot of these people are good friends of mine and more than a few of them work in the shellfish industry.” 

PA: “A lot of them live at the Gorge Harbor Marina dock due to the cheap winter rates. As soon as end of April comes around, they all have to leave and find their moorings somewhere else. This is obviously more of a problem for us because if they start mooring here, there and everywhere, they’re going to surround us. If they get too close, that’s it.” 

DFO will shut the farms down. 

EL: “You have to appreciate from the shellfish farmer’s perspective that we live in this incredibly regulated world, where we have to abide by all these different rules that are given to us from all these different government agencies in order to conduct our business. We have to have these leases in good standing with Forests, Lands and Natural Resources and then in cooperation with Transport Canada and all of their rules, the Navigable Waters Act, etc. On top of that, basically the way we conduct our business is highly regulated by the DFO – everything we do, logbooks, reports, gear tagging, traceability, all kinds of stuff.”

KSS: “It’s the growers who are required to test every month in these winter months, every week in the summer months, it’s very expensive. You can only test once a week.” 

EL: “If we get a water sample that  is contaminated with any kind of E.coli or anything, they’ll shut the site down temporarily.” 

KSS: “We have to have two clear tests  before we can sell. Because I only test once a week in the summer, it means by the time I can actually sell oysters again – it will be a month later.”

There was some confusion as to whether sites were permanently closed after failing three tests in succession. 

Cortes Currents has reached out to DFO, but not in time for this article.  

The BC Shellfish Growers Association did not respond to Cortes Currents query.

 Cec Robinson, a grower from Whaletown, emailed, “No area is ‘permanently’ shut down, but it is true that it is VERY difficult to get an area reopened once closed. Happily, most of Whaletown Bay has been reopened for several years now, after being closed completely for a few years, I think 2010-2012.”

Gorge Harbour is not the only aquaculture site on Cortes Island.

EL: “Cortes Bay is a permanently closed site. I don’t know if there ever were tenures in there or not, but certainly it would’ve been a place that the wild clam diggers would’ve gone in past times, and they have no access to that.”

“Whaletown Bay used to have more than one beach lease in it.”   

CR: “I can speak with direct knowledge only about Whaletown Bay. The eastern lagoon has been closed for decades, reasons unknown to me, but not boats, probably livestock, houses, and very shallow water. The part of Whaletown Bay south of the public dock is closed due to persistently poor water samples there. Again, in this case, not boats, probably decrepit septic systems.”

EL: “The Klahoose have many extremely productive beach tenures inside of Squirrel Cove, which is an extremely popular summer anchorage.  So we have a seasonal closure that the DFO has put in place there from, I think it’s May 15th until the end of September. That makes it really hard for the clam diggers and the oyster harvesters, because they only have the night tides in the winter and a little bit of the shoulder season to get in there and work. There is hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of product in there that goes unharvested every year.”

Klahose Aquaculture does not wish to comment at this time. 

Cortes Island’s shellfish growers are facing multiple challenges from  increased regulations, human infrastructure, and boats.

One of the challenges in Gorge Harbour, comes from recreational boaters coming to close to their lease areas. 

EL: “That is a big problem for us, and so luckily that’s a seasonal thing.”

Then there is also the growing problem of liveboards in the Gorge. 

KSS: “As far as I know, there aren’t any growers who are saying let’s get rid of all the liveaboards. It’s like you’re being accused of wanting to throw the homeless out of the park and at the same time we’re trying to maintain a commercial food industry.  The challenge is that the two don’t go together. It’s not that one is bad and the other is good inherently, it’s that they’re not good neighbors.” 

EL: “A lot of people that are living on their boats say, ‘Oh no, I’m not discharging sewage,’ or ‘I’m not too close to the farm’ and this and that. What they don’t realize is just their very proximity, their actual existence in the area, is enough to permanently compromise our businesses. That’s why we prefer and recommend that if you want to live on a boat, just do it somewhere other than a waterway with intensive aquaculture activities going on. It is an existential problem to the industry.”

Some of the concerns of shellfish growers in Gorge Harbour were examined in this article. There are many more issues, and perspectives, to be examined in the posts to come.

Top photo credit: Kristen Scofield-Sweet at work on her rafts, on Bee Islets. The entrance to Gorge Harbour can be seen in the distance. – submitted photo.

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