Environmental Interaction and Coastal Economic Development

Shellfish farming has been practiced on the coast of British Columbia for over 100 years, so it is a proven and established activity. However recent years have seen big strides in productivity, technological advances, and lately, the promise of new opportunities for the expansion of farming areas. In these respects it is a young and vital industry – one that holds great promise for providing sustainable economic opportunities to coastal communities in BC. Perhaps best of all, shellfish farmers are proud of their record of environmental stewardship of the pristine waters they depend on.


Shellfish farmers depend on clean, nutrient-rich waters for their livelihoods. Shellfish feed only on the naturally occurring organisms in our waters, so if this food source is depleted or affected by pollution, then the farmers are the first to notice. Local residents in shellfish farming areas can take comfort from knowing that growers are monitoring the waters year round, using methods ranging from simple observation to sophisticated water quality testing and laboratory analysis.


Perhaps less well known is the fact that the presence of oysters and other filter feeding shellfish in large concentrations has a very beneficial ecological effect in helping to mitigate some of the damage done to coastal areas by upland activities.

The story of how oysters are saving Chesapeake Bay (Virginia) is an interesting one. In common with Baynes Sound and Cortes Island here in BC, it has a long history of a very high density of oysters growing in its waters. However, environmental scientists attribute the declining health of the Chesapeake Bay through much of the 20th century to a decline in the oyster population. Oysters, in their heyday, could filter and clean all the water in the bay in three to five days. Working together to Save the Bay, state and local governments, environmentalists and shellfish farmers have pledged to increase the overall oyster population in the bay tenfold by 2010.


In addition to the filtering of potentially damaging amounts of algae and sediments from the water, recent scientific studies have shown that oyster culture has other ecological benefits too. The recycling effect of filter feeding which returns valuable sediments to the bottom has been shown to increase the productivity of sea grass beds – an important habitat for juvenile fish. Shellfish farms teem with an abundance of marine life of all kinds. It has been found that cultured shellfish and their associated plant life provide homes and protection for a variety of invertebrate and fish communities. Off-bottom longlines and rafts provide welcome habitat for creatures that in turn provide an important food source for fish and birds.


Shellfish farming in BC is located entirely in rural coastal areas, where archival photographs show it has provided a livelihood for local people for over a hundred years. However, it was not until the last 30 or 40 years or so that production methods improved to the point that shellfish aquaculture became an economic mainstay for a number of coastal communities.

As this map shows, shellfish farms are primarily located around the west coast of Vancouver Island, and in the Georgia Basin. Historically, the most prolific areas for production have been in the Baynes Sound, Cortes Island, and Okeover Inlet areas, and it is these areas that are most heavily reliant on aquaculture for their social health and economic well being. Community members are at present working hard to preserve and protect these valuable water-farming areas from other development pressures by taking part in planning processes to balance resource use demands.

Over the last few years, many hard-hit communities on the west coast of Vancouver Island have recognized the potential of shellfish farming, and are actively working to secure tenures and encourage investment. Although farming currently takes place mainly in the south of the province, pilot work is underway on the North Coast to determine growth rates, site, and species suitability. Statistic show that 78% of all revenue from shellfish farming stays in the community.


The typical shellfish farm is still family owned and run, although some innovative solutions to ownership such as cooperatives and multi-family corporations are also to be found. Many First Nation communities also have thriving aquaculture businesses. Ownership of shellfish farms is spread across many businesses. Statistics for the year 2000 show that there were 417 active tenures, operated by 231 separate businesses. Almost all shellfish tenure holders live and work in the communities in which their farms are located.

It is estimated that over 1000 people are currently employed in shellfish aquaculture – it is the number one employer on Cortes Island and in Baynes Sound. There are prospects for 1000 new jobs to be created in BC through controlled growth over the next 10 years. Shellfish farms operate year-round, so employment is not seasonal. The industry is very labour intensive, with more per capita being spent on wages than other comparable sectors such as fishing and terrestrial agriculture.

The increasing use of equipment and other devices to assist in handling product means that there are good job opportunities for men and women of all ages. The application of science and technology to increase productive capacity makes the industry increasingly attractive to young people, and gives them an opportunity to return to work in their home communities after training. Marketing efforts and an increasing emphasis on value-added products have resulted in steady gains in farmgate and wholesale values during the same ten-year period.

Statistical Sources: BC’s Fish Product and Seafood Industry in the 90’s (BC Stats); Department of Fisheries and Oceans Statistics; BC Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries Statistics.