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Seaweed on a beach in B.C.Nikki Bayley/The Globe and Mail

Winter storms that pound the beaches of Vancouver Island also throw up a rich harvest that has become increasingly controversial in the Deep Bay area, about 70 kilometres north of Nanaimo.

The sweeping sand and gravel shorelines, which draw flocks of tourists year round, are known for their quiet beauty and abundant marine life. But a pilot program started by the provincial government that allows the commercial harvest of storm-tossed seaweed has upset many local residents.

"It's just terrible," Deep Bay resident Greg Boulton said Wednesday of the seaweed harvest that is now underway. "It's a very, very quiet area but we have a 5 kilometre stretch of beach that's been given over to these seaweed harvesters. They have a tracked vehicle on the beach with a big crane on it. They drive along the beach, loading up these cages with seaweed. They park trailers and dump trucks by the side of the road... and they haul right through our community."

Mr. Boulton said residents of Deep Bay, which is largely a retirement community, have had protest rallies on the beach and have sent a petition to the legislature.

But this year they saw the harvest level allowed by the government increase from 600 to 900 tonnes, in the third year of a pilot project.

"I think they just did that to tell us to piss off," said an exasperated Mr. Boulton.

He complained that government issued seaweed harvesting permits without any public consultation and without any advance environmental impact studies.

Government officials weren't available for comment Wednesday.

The government has partially funded research by the University of Victoria and Vancouver Island University which is studying the movement and growth of Mazzaella japonica, a seaweed that builds up in big rows, known as wracks, along the beaches around Deep Bay after winter storms.

In a recent press release the VIU researchers asked the public to watch for clumps of seaweed marked with brightly coloured flagging tape, which are being tracked to see where Mazzaella japonica drifts.

The seaweed is valuable because it contains carrageenans, an extract used as a gelling agent in cosmetics and food products. Although Mazzaella japonica is harvested globally, it is a new business in B.C.

"It's a huge risk," Ian Birtwell, a retired federal marine scientist said of the government's decision to allow the commercial harvest without first knowing the possible environmental impact.

"The word I would use is ludicrous," he said. "It doesn't make sense to me that government would initiate a pilot project without rigorous examination of the consequences."

Dr. Birtwell said the university studies will provide some valuable information, but not the kind of detailed, biological information that's needed.

A study Dr. Birtwell did last year with two other retired government scientists and Ramona de Graaf, a marine biologist, warned that the seaweed wracks play an important environmental role that's not fully understood.

But Jason Rose, owner of Stormy Shores Seaproducts, said harvesters operate in a sustainable manner.

The tracked vehicle his crews use has little impact on the beaches, he said, and seaweed is collected by hand so as not to disturb areas where sand lance and surf smelt might lay eggs.

Mr. Rose also said the seaweed is a foreign species that was accidentally introduced when Japanese oysters were planted in nearby Baynes Sound, about 50 years ago.

He said Mazzaella japonica has been spreading rapidly and can support a limited harvest.

"The product is coming ashore in the last 10 years in larger volumes than historically," he said.

Mr. Rose said the pilot project has been a success and he'd like to see the government approve seaweed harvesting as a permanent business on the West Coast.

"I'd like to see the industry stay about the size it presently is. I think it's a sustainable volume we are harvesting now," he said.