Shellfish farmers cautioned

Jan 09, 2003, vol. 26, no. 1
By Carol Thorbes

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Shellfish farming may be an economic godsend for unemployed loggers and fishers, but its development must proceed wisely, warns Leah Bendell-Young (left).

The Simon Fraser University expert in applied ecology has started to unearth some telling findings in a $700,000, five-year, interdisciplinary study funded by the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council.

“If shellfish farming overtakes beaches,” says Bendell-Young, “a variety of intertidal organisms whose existence depends on the foreshore and ultimately, shellfish farmers could pay a hefty price.”

Shellfish farmers drape vast swaths of clam-laden beaches with anti-predator netting to prevent birds, such as sea ducks, from consuming their lucrative product.

Ironically, the netting could be jeopardizing shellfish farming, potentially a $100 million a year industry, by disrupting nutrient cycles needed to support healthy clam populations on coastal beaches.

“Initial studies have indicated that one consequence of anti-predator netting is to alter the foreshore community,” says Bendell-Young who is studying the foreshore ecology of Baynes Sound, Desolation Sound and Barkely Sound. “Communities go from being balanced with species that live on the surface of the sediment and below it, to being dominated by sediment-dwelling bivalves (aquatic molluscs with a hinged double shell). This could impact the movement of nutrients, such as carbon, that are key for supporting flora and fauna, which nourish the sediment-dwelling bivalve.”

Scientists collaborating with Bendell-Young on this study are examining the impact of anti-predator netting on migratory birds, which feed on clam-laden beaches.

Ron Ydenberg, a professor of behavioural ecology at SFU and Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) researchers are looking at how exclusive use of foreshores for shellfish farming affects habitats for over-wintering birds.

Bendell-Young stresses the results of this collaborative study will not only increase scientific knowledge of foreshore ecology, but also help shellfish farmers make a sustainable living.

Many of them are former fishers and loggers in economically adrift coastal communities seeking greater access to the foreshore.

They hope to benefit from shellfish farming, an industry dubbed the next resource-based cash cow in B.C.

Bendell-Young credits infor-mation workshops through CWS and SFU's centre for coastal studies (CCS), and government involvement with bringing together various stakeholders to develop sustainable shellfish farming practices rather than turn netted beaches into battlegrounds.

“Recommendations ensuing from our study will provide shellfish farmers with specific information on how to farm environmentally safely while maintaining a satisfactory product yield,” says Bendell-Young.

This study is the first to widely examine the impact of anti-predator nets and other shellfish farming practices on B.C.'s foreshore, and look at environmentally responsible economic diversification.

As part of the Speaking of Science lecture series in SFU's continuing studies in science, Bendell-Young will talk about her research. Her lecture Some Issues Facing the Expanding B.C. Shellfish Industry takes place Jan. 16 at 7 p.m., room 7000, Harbour Centre. To guarantee a seat, please call 604-291-5000.

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