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  • Writer's pictureStory and photos by Quinn Bender

Crisis in the half shell

It's the world's most sustainable form of aquaculture expected to feed the planet's exploding population. BC is positioned to lead the world in oyster production, but Canada's crushing bureaucracies are pushing farmers out of business


Until then, Rob Tryon's pace hadn't changed much in 13 years at NW Aquaculture. On this day, In an aluminum harvester he tows a processing hut across the cove to one of many wooden rafts, weathered-down and rickety, that line his spot on the western reach of Vancouver Island. To the stern, blue chimney smoke drifts from an old house bolted to an iron barge moored metres from shore. There is no noise, but for the clatter and scrape of a few farmhands sorting the harvest, and no roads, but boat visits from distant neighbours are delightfully unexpected. And rare.

Rob missed his family.

He always missed his family, and he wondered if taking over his father’s oyster farm here in Effingham Inlet was worth the sacrifice.

"A little while ago I realized I needed to get people to ask for my oysters by name, and then I thought of this,” he says, thrusting his hands toward the sea. “Effingham Inlet! I got this vision of a guy sitting at a cocktail bar and shouting out to the waitress: 'Hey, gimme’ another effin’ oyster!"'

So, aiming a cellular repeater off a distant mountain he found a weak signal and typed: #geteffed.

It was time to shake things up.

As one of the youngest in his field, at 33, Tryon would use social media to connect directly with consumers through a shared love of mollusks. Once the seeds were in plenty again, maybe he would be positioned to ramp up production and modernize his farm. Make the sacrifices worthwhile.

He finds his footing on a raft then winches up a stack of oyster trays from a depth of 20 feet. He's reared these little darlings for three years, from the time they were millimetres-wide seedlings fresh out of their larval stage. It’s time to see them off to finer restaurants in Vancouver, Montreal, Chicago and Hawaii.

"The response to social media was incredible," he says. “People want to know their farmers now. They want to see your face.”

Within one year orders had increased 30 per cent. He befriended chefs, bloggers and diners through hundreds of tweets about this lifestyle, his family and anything oyster related: its health benefits (in micro detail), signature flavour profiles and, increasingly so, the sustainability of shellfish farming. Chefs seized upon his passion, visiting his farm from points across Canada. He ordered T-shirts emblazoned with his playful hashtags and held oyster-trivia contests with Facebook fans. Then he organized other farmers to help him co-host public tastings, because this wasn’t only about the Effing oyster anymore, but the survival of all independent farmers.

On his left forearm, Tryon wears a three-inch tattoo of his favored species, Crassostrea gigas, commonly known as the Pacific oyster, crossed with two shucking knives not unlike a pirate's Jolly Roger. He’s adamant the oyster farm is a revolution in progress: a source of protein on an overcrowded planet; a sustainable harvest in depleted seas; and a source of jobs--lots of them--for BC's ailing coastal communities. Any time now, he insists, the $10-million industry in BC will explode to $100 million overnight.

“It’s a major opportunity for this province,” he says, guiding the harvest into the processing hut and selecting a large specimen from the top tray. Every three months he’s moved this oyster from its cool depths to a metal tumbler, giving the abductor muscle a good workout to encourage growth of a deeper cup--a fatter oyster. Each tumble is evident on the shell like rings on a tree. It quickly meets Tryon’s shucking knife--the words “Effing ‘ster popper” engraved in the handle--before it’s consumed whole. He pauses with the briney start, that pure, seawater liquor. Then with a vigorous chew he punctures the stomach, releasing the algae for that sweet, melony aftertaste.

THE CRISIS BEGAN eight years ago in Washington State, when millions of Pacific oyster larvae failed to develop healthy shells, and then died. Scientists gradually identified ocean acidification as the cause. For BC farmers who depend on Washington seeds, the consequence was dire.

"Everyone's calling each other asking if they've found seed. It’s kind of the routine now. If I don't find any this year, I don't know what I'm going to do. Well, I do, I'll be looking for a new career."

All past efforts to establish a local, Canadian-owned hatchery died in the feasibility stage, as the industry was just too small to support the pricy enterprise. With demand now peaking, a new industry-led effort is underway to build a BC nursery, but it will be at least six months before a funding proposal can fall into place. That leaves BC stagnant once again this year in what’s become the world’s largest seafood trade.

TRYON LOVES OYSTERS. He loves eating them as much as farming them. It's a shame this year's harvest will prove to be his last.

The Pacific oyster was imported from Japan in the 1920s, after local harvesters nearly wiped out native species. Food producers favoured its tough shell and tolerance to temperature fluctuations. Pacific oyster farms are now found around the globe, providing 4.5-million tonnes of the 31-million tonnes of seafood consumed annually, according to the latest figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. It’s the largest production volume of any single sea species on the planet, worth approximately $4 billion annually.

While the Pacific oyster’s presence is universal, it achieves a flavour profile unique to each region's plankton and algae. BC's nutrient-rich coastline is thought to produce some of the tastiest. Yet the province harvested just 7,500 tonnes of oysters in 2011 valued at $9.2 million, according to the BC Ministry of Environment. Roughly 280 small farms, employing 1,000 people (some say as few as 700), cover just 500 hectares of tenure. That’s equivalent to the runway footprint at Vancouver International Airport, a paltry one per cet of BC’s 47,000-kilometre island-studded, nutrient-rich coastline.

The gap between capacity and actual output leaves many banging their heads over BC’s reluctance to push this floundering industry forward.

At Vancouver Island University, the Centre for Shellfish Research envisions a BC industry easily reaching $100 million while still maintaining the all-important social licence with other coastline interests. The centre’s director, Don Tillapaugh, says he’s certain this will happen, but not so confident today's farmers will play a role. They need to expand and modernize their operations first, a near-impossible request at the tail-end of a demobilizing seed shortage.

"It's been a relatively small-scale industry, and because of that... there's a lot of foreign investment money that's investigating, and being invested in the industry currently."

In other words, it’s about cash. The farmers don’t have it, but foreign consolidators do. Equity is needed to secure a reliable seed supply, but also to shoulder the crushing regulatory policies of two levels of government.

WHEN THE SEED CRISIS LOOKED ITS WORST, a BC Supreme Court transferred aquaculture regulation from the Province to the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Moved by evidence of disease and diminished habitat around open-net salmon farms, self-described marine biologist Alexandra Morton challenged Victoria's constitutional right to manage any aquaculture activities in federally-controlled waters. Her victory, while a big win for anti-salmon-farm activists, was a curious setback for oyster farmers, now regulated by a department established for wild finfish.

"We're farmers. We don't pluck a public resource,” says Matthew Wright, communications manager for the BC Shellfish Growers Association. “We buy our seeds, we put them in the water and then we harvest them two or three years later. Fisheries management practices don't translate."

BC is now the only Canadian province whose aquaculture falls under the Fisheries Act.

"The Fisheries Act is 180 years old. They’ve made some amendments recently, but there still isn't a single use of the word aquaculture," says the BCSGA's executive director, Roberta Stevenson. "All of the wording is inappropriate."

The transfer of oversight is causing headaches on both sides of the bureaucratic divide. But the DFO is just one of 17 government branches shellfish farmers answer to, and it's overwhelming farmers with the simple act of paperwork.

Last December the Canadian Food Inspection Agency added to that load with new regulations requiring veterinarian certification on each shipment of seed into Canada, rather than the batch from which each shipment derived. The industry called the rule needlessly redundant but were forced to absorb the cost.

"There are [17] different federal and provincial agencies we have to deal with,” says Wright. “It's no wonder the farmers get confused. We are the most heavily regulated food industry in Canada."

AT THE SHELLFISH RESEARCH CENTRE, Tillapaugh points to an identical scenario that drove the independent salmon-farm industry into foreign consolidation. “The cost of meeting the environmental regulatory compliance required people to hire consultants to fill out all the forms. And that requires larger companies to be able to afford those costs... there's a lot of investors right now, mostly Asian, who are looking to buy into the BC aquaculture industry.

"It's ironic, everyone likes small and beautiful when it comes to farming, but when you add this kind of regulation it drives it to a whole different level of industry."

Few know more about the industry than Dr. Rohana Subasinghe. The senior aquaculture officer of the Fisheries and Aquaculture Department at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, recently visited the University of Victoria as part of his mission to push aquaculture into the 21st century. By 2050 the world’s projected population of 9-billion will require 70 per cent more protein supply than what we’re currently producing. Subasinghe holds up aquaculture as the solution. Oysters encourage healthy ecosystems, as they clean the water with their filter-feeding action, and they don’t deplete other species for food. While best-practices research is ongoing into some of the more problematic farmed species, particularly feed-dependent finfish, the farmed oyster is a kind of rock star in the aquaculture kingdom, ready to take the stage.

Subasinghe is equally attentive to the role it is playing in global poverty reduction. “There are 12-million people employed by independent farmers, the backbone of the industry,” he says. But he warns a corporate level of aquaculture is on the rise worldwide where government regulation isn’t in line with industry needs. As small-farm owners are pushed out of business, their communities are relieved of the profits and incentives for entrepreneurism.

If BC’s independent farmers are to survive the next 15 years, with the current regulatory procedures in place, Subasinghe says it’s unlikely they will take a share of the exploding international demand.

“Remember, in [15 years] more than 50 per cent of the world’s middle class will be in Asia. There will be a lot of demand for fish there... but because of the regulatory framework [in Canada], your prices are quite high so you probably won’t be able to export.

“You have to reduce the costs and provide more incentives to farmers. I think there is a political will, but the administrative procedures have become too cumbersome.”

Like many in BC, Subasinghe suspects that political will is undermined by the negative branding open-net salmon farms have cast over the entire aquaculture industry.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, through its Seafood Watch program, publishes the food world’s de facto list of sustainable food choices. Since 1999 the Aquarium has given the farmed oyster its highest rank, "Best Choice". (Farmed salmon, it’s lowest: “Avoid.”)

The Vancouver Aquarium offers a similar endorsement on its website.

On the ecological front, it’s difficult to find detractors of suspended oyster farming. The Centre for Shellfish Research conducted two impact studies on intensive oyster farming practices in 2003 and 2005. Oysters loosed from trays did alter the immediate seafloor from a soft-bottom to hard-bottom community habitat, but from a scientific perspective this was good news. The amount of species diversity hadn’t changed. It just changed in its complexion.

The David Suzuki Foundation, when pressed for criticism of BC oyster farming, came back with nothing.

TRYON'S TWO EMPLOYEES ARE HARD WORKERS, but this is their first harvest. Neither can drive a harvester, nor expedite operations. Nonetheless, at week’s end when they board the boat for a two hour trip back to Port Alberni, Tryon raises his fist and smiles upon finding their sleeping bags still in their beds. It means they plan to return next week. So few do.

Tryon has enough work for four people, but not enough money to hold their interest.

"Just stay with me, and I promise things will get better," he tells the two. "Just stick with it and we'll all be making more money soon. I promise." Tryon then announces a $10 raise: a $110 daily total.

"They need to know there’s a future for them here. I see it very often when young, able-bodied men and women are leaving BC for Alberta to make a living, to support their families. The thought has crossed my mind too over the years, but I've grown up on the coast. I've spent my life on the water. I can't leave this beauty. To go from a super-sustainable industry to, you know, working in the oil sands is something I don't think I could do."

Tryon steers the harvester away from the raft for a brief shore excursion. It's the first time he's stepped on solid ground in two days. On a narrow coastline he upturns boulders and prods crevices for a myriad of sea life. He has catalogued more than 100 species piggybacking habitats on his trays, but he values the coastline for its natural biodiversity, an index of his farm’s health.

He finds a wild sea cucumber and lays it in his palm. Deep red and horned with a water-balloon-like consistency, it measures a foot in length. This, says Tryon, could end the crisis. If he could farm a small number of sea cucumber and other native species, like the geoduck clam (worth up to $50 each on the Asian markets), it would provide equity to retain workers, see him past seed shortages and maybe bankroll upgrades to his farm.

DFO is researching the impacts of diversifying aquaculture, but is making no visible move to lift the barriers to these lucrative markets. BC’s geoduck harvest, from both wild stocks and a few experimental farms, totaled just 1,600 tonnes in 2011, but raked in $41 million. This is compared to 7,500-tonnes of oyster worth only $9.2 million.

The expansion of independent farming is limited not by a lack of homegrown entrepreneurship, but by policies that appear favourable to corporate-level consolidation.

That still doesn’t sit well with Tryon, but in the space between the writing of this story and seeing it to print, Rob Tryon quit oyster farming for good. In the end his idealist’s passion was overcome by a mundane “mountain of debt.” Along with the many side effects of a personal financial crisis, it was all proving unsustainable to his homelife.

He packed his truck and moved to Alberta.

Allying himself with the public through social media and live events Tryon found an upswell of support for shellfish farming by the simple act of showing his face and starting a dialogue. But securing the support of the masses will be an ongoing challenge for other farmers if they don’t address the notorious branding of aquaculture. It’s worth noting Alexandra Morton, whose legal action put aquaculture in the headlines to begin with, never actually took issue with the shellfish industry. She says her focus was farmed salmon only, that shellfish farms were simply caught in the legal definition of aquaculture.

"I really don't know much about it [shellfish farming],” Morton told me. “but it seems a much more benign form of aquaculture."

Despite this lukewarm endorsement, public stigma persists. "Because salmon farming is in the news so often, people just hear 'aquaculture' and think it's all negative," Tryon says by telephone from Alberta. "Then you have the DFO; they look at us like we're a bunch of cowboys.

“The voices of the shellfish farmers have not been heard."

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