Shellfish die-off shows a future we must avoid

The Feb. 27 headline, “Ocean acidity wipes out 10M scallops; Mass die-off near Qualicum Beach ominous sign for shellfish harvest,” should have hit British Columbians like a punch in the stomach.

The shellfish industry has been an economic powerhouse on central Vancouver Island for decades, providing hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in revenue every year — more than $30 million in average wholesale value.

But when we talk about shellfish, we aren’t just talking jobs and economics. We are talking about food. Shellfish harvesting is one of our most robust local food systems, and the prospect of losing this industry makes us all feel, quite frankly, a little hungry.

Of the possible causes of the recent scallop die-off, ocean acidification seems the most likely. Ocean acidification is directly connected to climate change and to our runaway consumption of fossil fuels. In short, acidification occurs when carbon is absorbed into the ocean from the atmosphere, making the water more acidic. Acidification strips the ocean of carbonate ions, which marine species like scallops and oysters need to build their shells, therefore reducing the ability of these species to survive.

For years, groups like the B.C. Shellfish Growers Association have been raising the alarm about the verified threat of acidification to the shellfish industry.

Roberta Stevenson, the association’s executive director, told us that the public and our elected decision-makers need to understand how serious the situation is for shellfish growers on B.C.’s coast. She said the significant economic benefits the industry provides could disappear if we don’t start to see the health of the oceans as an economic priority.

A major source of atmospheric carbon is the burning of fossil fuels: oil, coal and gas. In B.C., we have a stake in important decisions over whether to build fossil-fuel export infrastructure. The proposed Enbridge and Kinder Morgan pipelines, the prospective B.C. liquefied natural gas industry and the proposed Raven coal mine will all put much more carbon into the atmosphere, further acidifying the ocean and directly threatening the survival of shellfish species and coastal communities.

All these proposed projects need B.C.’s consent. It’s important that we make the right choices and get on a path to a low-carbon future.

The recent scallop die-off is a clear illustration of what we will face if we don’t act now to reduce our carbon emissions. Climate change and ocean acidification will continue to have devastating consequences, not just for coastal economies, communities and families, but for anyone who depends on the ocean as a source of food.

What’s more, coal, oil, and gas are finite resources, guaranteed to go bust when they run out, become too expensive or when the environmental impacts are deemed not worth the risk. Any financial benefits we gain from extracting and exporting them will one day disappear completely. We will be left with the socio-economic hardship and lingering environmental problems well-known to many communities where boom-bust extractive industries have run their course.

By continuing to promote the extraction and export of coal, oilsands oil and fracked gas instead of sustainable sectors in B.C., our government is making a political choice to prioritize short-term profits over renewable industries that can provide economic stability and contribute to viable, healthy communities over the long term.

We all deserve good jobs that don’t destroy our children’s future. For the sake of these shellfish and the families that depend on them, let’s work together to develop a smart and creative strategy to transition away from fossil fuels and toward a low-carbon economy — with meaningful jobs in sustainable industries that don’t compromise ecosystems. A healthy coast is one with abundant food that can still be pulled from the ocean, as it always has been.

If we keep pumping carbon into our atmosphere, we’re investing in an acidic ocean for decades, if not centuries, to come, and we’re forsaking the sustainable shellfish industry and the communities, businesses and jobs it supports.

Caitlyn Vernon is campaigns director for Sierra Club B.C. Torrance Coste is Vancouver Island campaigner for the Wilderness Committee.

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