This is not a new issue but one which is really hitting home this year as many growers are struggling to get the seed they require for their farms. The problem is complex but basically boils down to the following:
- Almost the entirety of oyster seed in BC comes from US hatcheries in Washington, Oregon and Hawaii
- The US oyster industry is much larger with more vertical integration, that allows US companies to support hatcheries that are larger, established, capitalized and are able to sell seed (when available) typically at low prices relative to production costs.
- US hatcheries have been struggling with larvae mortalities originally thought to be the bacterium vibrio tubiashii but now known to be acidification of coastal waters through a process known as Ocean Acidification. This has meant that the oyster industry has been struggling to supply its needs since approximately 2005 and in Washington State this is considered a crisis. Oyster hatcheries are finding ways to mitigate the problem but it has been difficult.
- At the same time the US industry is responding to strong oyster markets and a projected $10 Billion shortfall of US Seafood requirements. This means that US companies are serving their own seed needs first and who can blame them? That means Canadian Growers go to the back of the line and smaller growers who make up most of the BC industry end up at the very back.
We know this because lots of growers phone here and with the future of their farms in doubt, many are getting panicky. This has inevitably led to lots of discussions about a new shellfish hatchery for oysters in BC but this is complex too.
- There have been hatcheries for oysters in BC but they have typically been small and their costs of production have been high compared to cost of oyster seed from the USA. Small growers have been cost conscious and have not supported the local hatcheries when US seed was cheaper, as a result there no oyster hatcheries sufficient to supplies the industry needs.
- We currently have some shellfish hatcheries in BC but they are part of vertically integrated companies that grow other species (mussels, geoducks, scallops etc.) Some have and are trying to produce oyster seed but this has so far had to be secondary to their core business and because the previous bullet, interest has not been that strong.
- Shellfish hatcheries are expensive and complex and as a result it is difficult if not near impossible for small oyster companies to afford to build and operate an efficient hatchery themselves.
In addition to straightforward issues of supply, dependence on foreign seed brings up issues of trade security risk in terms of permitting and regulatory issues and competition. Ability to pursue the development of indigenous species, ensuring higher seed quality and promoting hatchery and development specific to BC is restricted. For a successful hatchery that serves the entire BC industry to be constructed and operated, some sort of a shared model may be the best opportunity. Additionally should some disease issue occur such as Oyster herpes virus such as happened in New Zealand or France, movement of seed will be further constrained.
We have been thinking about what role the Centre for Shellfish Research could play to support the industries seed requirements. In 2008 (4 years ago now!) we, with financial help from the Province of BC published a draft report on The Feasibility of a Shared Shellfish Hatchery for British Columbia. If you are at all affected or interested in this issue I urge you to download the report here. We left the report as Draft because we wanted to keep the dialogue going. Essentially this is what the report found (from the executive summary):
- A new BC stand alone hatchery is only economically feasible if funding for capital costs (for building construction and equipment) and purchase/ lease of a suitable site can be obtained from other sources. Given the economic potential of shellfish aquaculture for revitalizing coastal economies and First Nations communities, a strategic investment by governments should be considered.
- Research has shown that many operational models have been utilized to run shellfish hatcheries and that each situation is different. A strategic investment by governments can only provide under certain conditions. There is also a requirement for working capital for at least two years until the new hatchery has proven its reliability.
- A review of the potential for co-locating a commercial hatchery at the Deep Bay Field Station site found many advantages including: significant synergies and reciprocal benefits can be generated for both the commercial hatchery and CSR researchers and students; savings on land purchase costs; sharing physical infrastructure costs (e.g. seawater systems); acceleration of the ramp-up time for hatchery construction as permitting process is complete and seawater intakes have been installed; improved business risk management because hatchery problems can immediately be brought to the attention of CSR scientists and technicians. A major advantage is the potential increased comfort level for government to invest in a university based joint venture. The site is, however, limited by the footprint available requiring consideration of a two-floor hatchery design.
- Conditions imposed by government for financial support for a new shellfish hatchery may be the determining factor. In addition, interested parties will have their own preferences for hatchery design and operation. Because of this, it was recommended that a Request for Proposals that sets out terms and conditions for a joint venture hatchery with government financial support with the aims of filling the identified see shortage needs of the BC industry and made generally available for response.
The report generated much discussion but little action. Industry at the time could not achieve consensus on how or if to go forward. Although we found many successful models for Public/University and Industry partnerships this is a new beast for the BC Shellfish culture industry and many felt uncomfortable about it. Unfortunately no alternate solutions that can meet all the industry needs has transpired since that time.
The lower site at the Field Station where we considered the development of a shellfish hatchery facility that we would potentially lease out to a private operator(s).
Since 2008, we remain committed to aiding the shellfish industry in finding a solution whether it be at the Field Station or with any other operator. Simply put, without adequate supplies of sufficient seed, the BC Oyster industry will not be able to achieve its significant potential, and continued reliance on foreign seed (no matter how much we like the seed suppliers to the south), leaves BC growers at risk of a closed border. Hatcheries are risky things especially in a period of climate change and ocean acidification, we believe that the final solution will require multiple facilities that can collectively manage risk for the entire industry. Furthermore, we have questioned whether competition at the seed level is the best option for a healthy industry structure.
Although we don’t have further funding or a strong mandate to move this issue forward, where possible we have continued to build foundations should a potential mandate occur. Our actions to date have included:
- Reserving for the time being additional building space at the lower section of the Field Station
- Building excess capacity into our seawater system for future expansion needs.
- Including power, domestic water and seawater “stubs” for a future building.
- Building a research scale hatchery that has increased out hatchery knowledge, allowed proving out of systems, public demonstration of technologies and most of all serving as a mechanism for training students from our Fisheries and Aquaculture program in advanced hatchery techniques. Ultimately human capacity is what makes or breaks any hatchery.
We’d love to hear from you on this issue.