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Fecal contamination in ocean water the subject of UBC research

Project can help the life of the shellfish industry, say researchers
A tugboat hauls the old Queen of Burnaby into Baynes Sound. Researchers are creating a test to help manage and control fecal contamination in marine waters, such as Baynes Sound. (File photo)

A project in B.C. seeks to identify and monitor the sources of fecal pollution in marine waters.

A research team is creating a test, which aims to find the culprit when fecal contamination is discovered in water. The research project is called the Genomic Ecological Microbial Source Tracking for Oceans Nature and the Environment, or GEMSTONE.

“These tests will serve as an early warning system so that we can improve the safety and viability of BC’s shellfish industry,” said Suzanne Gill, president and CEO of Genome B.C. “The real value here is consumer confidence.”

The test aims to judge if a fecal source was human, and if not, to identify what animal produced the fecal waste. This will help B.C. areas control and manage contamination, according to a press release from the life science non-profit Geonome B.C.

It will also help produce better responses to contamination, said one of the researchers.

“Currently when contamination is detected, harvesting areas are closed quickly,” said Dr. Natalie Prystajecky, a project co-lead from UBC. “Often the source of contamination is not known, which means there is no mechanism to prevent the contamination from happening again.”

The project will create training materials to help people use the new resources in their community.

“It’s a first step in the right direction,” said Nico Prins, executive director of B.C. shellfish growers association. He said he’s “excited about the prospect.”

Through the project, it will help narrow down searches to discover and stop contaminations. This could happen by identifying the fecal contamination as coming from agricultural runoff, for example, as opposed to marine birds.

Prins said this will also have benefits for growers by keeping their shellfish as protected as possible and reducing product that is held back due to threats of contamination.

The shellfish area of Baynes Sound in Comox Valley has been subject of much attention regarding pollution. Malfunctioning septic systems are believed to be sending fecal waste into the water, which was part of a contaminated oyster recall in 2022.

At least 279 people fell ill during the incident.

In 2023, the Province of B.C. approved a $30 million grant to extend sewer lines from Courtenay to Union Bay, in part to reduce the risk of septic pollution.

The B.C. tracking project is led by researchers from the University of British Columbia and the BC Centre for Disease Control, and funded through Genome British Columbia. The BC Shellfish Growers Association and the Malahat Nation are partners on the project.

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Connor McDowell

About the Author: Connor McDowell

Started at the Record in May 2023. He studied journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax
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