Four-hour meeting in Union Bay all about sea cucumbers

A large group of people at the Union Bay Community Hall heard about an application to grow sea cucumbers in Baynes Sound.

LOCAL SEA CUCUMBER species

LOCAL SEA CUCUMBER species

A large group of people came out to the Union Bay Community Hall Thursday evening to hear about an application to grow sea cucumbers in Baynes Sound.

The application is for 155 hectares of sub-tidal land stretching from Gartley Point in south Royston, to just north of Union Point in Union Bay.

Dan Bowen, one of the applicants, said he’s pleased with how the public information meeting went, and he believes most of the confusion surrounding the application has now been cleared up.

“We cleared the air a lot about the application. I think everybody now understands what the application is for, which is good,” Bowen told the Record. “It’s very clear now and people, I think, are relieved and some people are still upset, so we have kind of a mixed bag.”

Confusion and concern surrounded the application when the public first learned of it and viewed it on the Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO) website. For example, geoducks were listed, which caused people to start talking. However, geoducks (large clams) are not included in the application which is only for sea cucumbers (related to starfish).

Thursday’s meeting, which lasted about four hours, featured a selection of speakers including local aquatic biologist Lora Tryon, Vancouver Island University’s Deep Bay Field Station manager Brian Kingzett, aquaculture manager for FLNRO Kathy Evans, a Department of Fisheries and Oceans representative, the applicants and others.

Tryon, who is involved in the project, spoke about the research aspect of it, pointing out that there is plenty to learn about sea cucumber aquaculture because it’s new to the province. She noted the creatures’ ability to clean waste in the ocean.

“They’ve put sea cucumbers in the bottom of fish pens and found that they’ve eaten over 50 per cent of the waste on the bottom of these pens,” said Tryon as she cited studies. “They’ve co-cultured them with Pacific oysters and once again they’ve taken up a lot of the organic waste from Pacific oysters.”

Pacific oysters are grown on numerous clam and oyster tenures in Baynes Sound.

The juvenile sea cucumbers would be housed in oyster shell heaps in deep water. Tryon added fencing would likely need to be set up around these ‘nursery’ areas. After three years of research, she said the hope is to use a ranching method of farming which would enable the sea cucumbers to float freely.

The nursery areas are expected to use about one per cent of the total tenure. And Tryon noted the goal is to keep density low for a number of reasons, including lower risk of disease and parasites.

Gartley Point Hatchery, owned by applicant Eric Gant, would be used for the project, and VIU’s Deep Bay Field Station on the southern end of Baynes Sound could also be involved with hatchery studies.

Kingzett said research requires collaborative partnerships between science and industry due to the need for funding, and he’s already studying sea cucumbers at the station. He is interested in expanding the station’s studies to include more field work, and he said the work done at the centre is not confidential — the public can come an see what they do there.

He said sea cucumbers can’t eat live algae or kelp, and actually act like “a worm in a compost heap.”

“They will have a role in recycling nutrients in the ecosystem,” he said.

Research is large component of the six-year pilot project, but Bowen acknowledged product could be ready to sell within three years from the beginning of the project, depending on how the research stage goes.

Sea cucumbers are used for traditional Chinese medicine, and are considered a delicacy in parts of Asia. Kingzett noted commercial interest in sea cucumbers and said they were worth $6 plus a pound in 2011.

However, the application process is just beginning, according to Evans. Although the application was submitted in October, preliminary work just wrapped up recently. The applicants received a letter that their application is accepted and posted an ad in the local paper.

But, that acceptance is only preliminary. Now, the FLNRO (provincial) reviews the application for Crown land among other things, the DFO (federal) will decide whether to grant an aquaculture licence and the Ministry of Transportation (federal) would review it in relation to navigable waters.

The three agencies work independently but try to coordinate their decisions dates, which likely won’t be soon.

“It is far too early in the process to even estimate when decisions will be made,” Evans told the Record. “Although there has been a lot of ‘preliminary’ work done with respect to the application… we are just beginning to review the package.”

Evans noted a lease, which is generally longer and allows more rights to leaseholders, will not be considered for the application. A licence of occupation, which is more likely, does not allow as much freedom to tenure holders and is used for more short-term tenures.

She said neither of these can be sold, but a tenure holder can sell their assets and the purchaser can apply for the tenure.

A $20,000 bond is required for clean up or reclamation of a site.

Annual rent is calculated a four per cent of land value, which she noted was just over $6,000 per hectare, but she added new tenures receive a discount of 50 per cent.

Bowen will repost the application next week due to the confusion. Residents will have 51 days to comment on the application after that. However, Evans noted the comment period is normally 30 days; Bowen had said 51 in error at one point.

Union Bay resident Tom Murray said many of his concerns were cleared up after the meeting, but he still had a few remaining.

One thing that bothers him is the discount on rent for new tenures.

“If I go into business, I don’t get my taxes for half and I don’t get rent for half for five years,” said Murray. “Why would you if you’re going into business do the same thing?”

He also noted the height of the containment fencing was not presently clearly at the meeting, but Bowen later told the Record it would be one to two feet in height surrounding the nursery areas but would be open on the top.

He also said that although star fish are a predator of sea cucumbers, he is not concerned and he has no plans to install “predator nets, or predator fencing or predator anything.”

Murray was still concerned about the size of the proposed tenures after explanations at the meeting.

“There may be research but why do you need these tremendous numbers of hectare area for research? I mean I don’t understand that at all. I can’t get a handle on that,” he said.

“I think it might help the bottom but it’s that whole problem of how much is too much, how many can you really put an area and they don’t know.”

Bowen said he may organize another public meeting for people who want more information, and he will create a website with all the questions he’s been asked with the answers alongside.

A second sea cucumber application for 107 hectares has been filed, according to Evans. It would run from just south of Union Point in Union Bay to about 300 metres north of the Buckley Bay ferry terminal. Bowen is acting as a consultant during the application process, but he said his involvement stops there.

writer@comoxvalleyrecord.com