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On the east coast of Vancouver Island, along a stretch of coast so scenic and quaint it is called Lighthouse Country, a U.S. company has big plans.

Island Scallops Ltd., whose corporate parent is Nevada-based Edgewater Foods International Inc., wants to build a huge aquaculture operation -- the largest ever seen on the West Coast -- that would produce 100 million scallops a year. To do that they plan to develop a network of long lines, 25 kilometres long, that would be held in place by 500 anchors and supported by 80 floats. The operation would cover an area about the size of Stanley Park, altering the postcard view, affecting marine traffic, interfering with a commercial herring fleet and occupying water near the town of Bowser that for generations has been popular with sports fishermen.

All of this is planned for an open stretch of azure ocean, just south of Denman Island, where the red and white Chrome Island lighthouse is a landmark for mariners and a set piece for tourist snap shots. On a good day, sea birds can be seen wheeling over schools of bait fish and the whoops of salmon anglers can be heard across the water.

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No wonder the Concerned Citizens and Friends of Lighthouse Country are up in arms about a proposal that would bring industrial-scale aquaculture to a whole new level in Georgia Strait.

The group of largely retired citizens, some of them former fisheries scientists, is spearheading a protest against the big scallop farm, and is prodding the government to protect the area.

"What we're faced with is a massive project on the water," says Tom Bird, a fisheries biologist and the former director of recreational fisheries for the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

"It is the largest [aquaculture operation]ever proposed in British Columbia -- in an area that's highly utilized by commercial and sport fishing traffic . . . and yet we have had virtually no biological, social or economic studies done on what the impact would be.

"That's incredible when you consider it is a proposal the likes of which we've never seen before. We don't know the impact on migrating salmon, or on spawning herring. There has been no real biological assessment on waste -- and you've got to assume 100 million scallops have to produce something."

Indeed. And they will have to eat something.

Scallops are filter feeders, and as they hang there on hundreds of rows of ropes, suspended between the surface and the bottom, they will be gulping up whatever microscopic organisms they can.

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"We are worried because there hasn't been any study of what food supplies are present and what will be used up by the 100 million scallops," says Brian Dane, a retired DFO engineering technologist with 25 years experience in salmon-habitat protection.

"You can see a big, black hole being developed out there in Georgia Strait. . . . It's like dragging a huge series of plankton nets through the area."

The location, just south of Baynes Sound, which is famous for its oyster beds, is used by newly hatched herring and salmon. The tiny fish feed on the same plankton the scallops will be ingesting. You'd think DFO would want to know the impact of that before giving approval. But so far the department hasn't asked the question. Nor does DFO know how the herring, or the herring fleet, will be affected.

Each spring, the waters around Denman Island teem with millions of spawning herring that circulate in deep water until they are sexually ripe.

When the females are ready, they flood into the shallows to deposit eggs on seaweed; the males swarm after them, releasing so much sperm the water turns white. Shadowing those schools of herring, waiting for the perfect moment to drop their nets, is a fleet of 80 to 100 commercial fishing boats.

Don Heron, a commercial fisherman for 49 years and a director of the Fishing Vessel Owners Association of B.C., is asked to imagine what might happen if the big scallop farm goes in as planned, right where his fleet gathers. He seems dumbfounded for a moment then answers in one word: "Chaos."

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Mr. Heron said a boat dragging nets loaded with tonnes of thrashing herring could easily drift into the scallop farm, become entangled and possibly go over. And the fleet would have to dodge around the farm -- which will cover about 600 football fields -- as they chase the mercurial schools of herring.

"We're not opposed to aquaculture. But it doesn't make sense to introduce a new industry that will be in conflict with an existing industry." His short message to the government: "Put it somewhere else."

Mr. Bird agrees.

"This proposal would establish an exclusive use, no-go area for one industry. . . . It creates an industrial zone in this highly popular area. . . . I have to ask: Does this represent appropriate siting? "

Island Scallops Ltd. argues that it does. In a submission to the provincial Special Committee on Sustainable Aquaculture, the company dismisses concerns about visual impact, saying its superstructure will mostly be under water. It rejects fears about the environment, saying shellfish leases in nearby Baynes Sound have shown no significant impact on food availability, and that tides will flush away the waste.

"Scallop farming is an environmentally sound activity that will provide a sustainable economic opportunity for local residents without threatening the unique features and natural beauty of Lighthouse Country," says the brief.

But you will have to take that on faith as there are no independent studies to confirm it.

The company admits its operation would hurt the herring fishery, but says that would only be for a short period each year. It neglects to acknowledge that this short period is the only shot the herring fleet gets at the herring all year.

The whole matter is before the federal government for review -- but it does not appear to be getting the hard scrutiny it deserves.

In replying to queries from Friends of Lighthouse Country, the DFO stated last July that it had not yet received a referral from the province about the application. But in a second letter, one month later, the DFO stated "the Habitat Management Unit has determined that this scallop farm will not significantly affect fish habitats at this site."

Wow. And they figured that out in one month? Without doing any studies?

Initially DFO wasn't worried about the impact on commercial fisheries. Then after hearing complaints from the herring fleet, it acknowledges there was a concern. This month, the DFO urged Transport Canada (which is the lead agency) not to approve the project "unless there is a firm agreement with the fishing interests in the area on suitable mitigation measures."

Two questions: Why is Transport Canada leading on an environmental issue? And why did the DFO have to be told to look out for the interests of the commercial fishery?

More questions arise when you examine the company's annual report, which lists outstanding federal loans worth about $1-million.

Island Scallops Ltd. needs to grow to turn its continuing losses into profit and pay back the government. Is that a factor?

There is also a personal tie worthy of note between Island Scallops and the government. The company's chief scientific adviser is Dr. Kristina Miller, a top research scientist with DFO. Her husband is Robert Saunders, chairman, CEO and president of Island Scallops Ltd.

There is no reason to think Island Scallops is getting an easy ride because it owes the government money and has a highly respected DFO scientist on board. But given those circumstances the government must strive to demonstrate transparency, scientific thoroughness and unquestionable fairness.

Before this massive scallop farm is approved, both the federal and provincial governments need to ensure that the environmental, social and economic impacts have been evaluated. To do less would be a disservice to the herring fleet, the salmon anglers -- and all those people who love Lighthouse Country just the way it is.

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