A local marine stewardship group has concerns about an application for a subtidal geoduck aquaculture venture near Union Bay, saying that the water and sediments need to be tested for toxins.
The concerns stem from the proximity of the proposed operation to the Union Bay coal hills, an area that has been recognized by the province as a “priority contaminated site” since 2012.
Joe Tarnowski and Westley Sampson have applied for a Licence of Occupation for Shellfish Aquaculture on Provincial crown land. They hope to start a subtidal geoduck farm immediately south of Union Bay and the coal hills, and directly next to Tarnowski’s current business, Baynes Sound Oyster Co.
Dorrie Woodward, chair of the Association of Denman Island Marine Stewards, says there needs to be tests done in the area to determine any toxins in the sediment before any such application is granted.
“My primary concern, and the concern of the Association of Denman Island Marine Stewards… is that there’s a great likelihood that sediments have traveled over the many years from the contaminated site… south onto the area that would be used for this geoduck aquaculture,” she said.
Testing at the coal hills has shown high levels of contaminants such as copper, arsenic, cadmium, mercury and iron, as well as a number of chemicals. However, Woodward is not aware of any tests done in the subtidal zone where Tarnowski and Sampson are hoping to farm geoducks.
“I haven’t been able to find any and I don’t think there are any studies of the sediments there that deal with the kinds of contaminants,” she said.
Geoducks are harvested by use of a stinger, a three quarter inch pipe that uses high water pressure to drive into the sand where the geoducks are planted, therefore potentially releasing any buried toxins into the water.
“So, if [harvesting] is going to happen and there is the toxins in the sediments there, then that really does constitute a danger to the marine ecosystems close by,” said Woodward. “Our concern is that we should know and be very clear before that happens. So what we’re asking for is the sediments be tested before this is permitted and that the tests be made public.”
Applicant says the area is clean
Tarnowski has owned Baynes Sound Oysters for 60 years with his father and says he has a lot of experience with aquaculture. He believes there are no toxins in the area he hopes to farm and stated that the closed area surrounding the coal hills only extends to the low tide mark.
“It’s below low tide – it’s from 10 feet to 40 feet of water. There is no contamination in there,” he said. “These people are making this stuff up.”
He adds he has tested manila clams from the area and did not find any fecal matter or metals in the clams. Tarnowski added that further testing of the substrate is not necessary.
“There are no tests to be done in the sediments,” he said. “They may have concerns but the animals that are coming out of the ground don’t have anything in them.”
Tarnowski currently operates an intertidal geoduck site on Denman Island and hopes to use the same harvest plan near Union Bay. This involves staggering geoduck planting over seven years, starting with a 1.57 hectare area.
“It’s deep water – that’s what it’s made for is geoducks,” he said. “It’s got beautiful sand on the bottom… I wouldn’t waste all of my time and money if it was going to be a failure.”
Woodward acknowledges that Tarnowski has followed correct procedures in submitting an application to the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, but she believes there has been oversight at various levels in the process.
“I’m not saying that Tarnowski is trying to do anything wrong on anything like that, I’m saying this is a place where due diligence needs to be done and until then, the application should not be accepted.”
The Association for Denman Island Marine Stewards has sent a letter to the Ministry and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans outlining their concerns.
However, Woodward admits that the Association would still oppose the geoduck aquaculture operation if tests in the area were to show no contamination in the sediment. Her reasoning is multifaceted, but one of her biggest concerns is the amount of plastic debris that stems from aquaculture practices such as this.
DFO says application is under review
Michelle Rainer, communications advisor with DFO says they work with the Province of BC to review applications such as this.
“As per established processes, DFO has forwarded the coal hills application to Environment and Climate Change Canada for review,” wrote Rainer in an email. “ECCC is the federal agency responsible for advising on marine sediment quality. The BC Ministry of Environment conducts water quality monitoring of freshwater and marine water through numerous programs to evaluate the condition of waterbodies in BC; these data are also considered in the review process.”
She added, “DFO does not move forward with applications if ECCC and [Ministry of Environment and Climate Change] indicate that environmental conditions at a proposed site make it unsuitable for shellfish culture.”
There are currently no subtidal geoduck aquaculture facilities within the Baynes Sound, but there are some productive intertidal sites, according to Melinda Scott, aquaculture management coordinator with the DFO. She adds that annual geoduck sales in B.C. range from $500,000 to $1.3 million.