More than 100 people attended a public meeting at the North Shore Community Centre Thursday evening to discuss the future management of Covehead Bay.
The North Shore environmental sustainability committee, which is a committee of the Community of North Shore Council, wants to form a local stewardship group to develop a long-term management plan for Covehead Bay and to advocate that the municipality be consulted by Fisheries and Oceans Canada on future decisions affecting the bay.
"Part of the challenge is there is no plan in place for the management of aquaculture fishing in harmony with other interests, and those other interests could be other commercial fishing, recreational fishing, recreational boating," explained Kent MacLean, a councillor and the vice-chair of the sustainability committee.
In the fall of 2016, the council began hearing from residents concerned about oyster cages appearing in the bay. The municipality then learned that some of the 92 acres of mussel leases on the bay were being converted to oyster leases, the committee explained.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans says four leases have been transferred from mussel to oyster aquaculture since this past winter, with no change in the amount of space taken up.
'The bay isn't just a bay'
The sustainability committee then held meetings with DFO, Transport Canada, the P.E.I. Department of Agriculture and Fisheries and others in an effort to get an understanding of how the bay is currently being managed.
"This is not an issue of not supporting aquaculture on Covehead Bay or in the province of P.E.I. … it's about building a plan, a sustainability plan, a stewardship plan for the bay so that aquaculture and the other elements … can live in harmony," said MacLean.
Some concerns expressed by community members included water quality, access to open bay waters, and the potential long-term environmental impacts of aquaculture leases on the bay.
"The mussel bed exists and the mussel bed is probably not going to be pulled out, but I think the idea that it could ... expand without any reference to the community itself, that's a bit shocking … Because I think the bay isn't just the bay, it's part of Stanhope. It's part of the essence of what Stanhope is," said seasonal resident David Smith.
The DFO says it has "published peer-reviewed documents which conclude oyster farming practices in Atlantic Canada have a relatively low environmental footprint."
'There has to be a collaborative effort'
There has to be a sharing of bay resources, said MP Wayne Easter, the federal representative for Malpeque.
"It can't be all aquaculture and it can't be all recreational and it can't be all fisheries. There has to be a sharing of resources and that has to be worked out," he said.
While he acknowledged that DFO is responsible for the water and not responsible for the community, he said the DFO should have a responsibility to consult with the community.
"You know, you can't just come into a bay and DFO exercise its muscle if you want to call it that, or its jurisdiction," said Easter. "There needs to be consultation with the community. DFO in and of itself may not have to do that. But the government of Canada has a responsibility to see that that's done, and I'll be pushing that."
He also added that the mussel farmers are just doing business, according to the rules.
"Some people are angry and frustrated to a certain extent with the lease holders that are operating in the bay. They have followed the rules that have been set out by DFO," said Easter.
"They've made a huge investment in terms of these oyster cages that they're putting out there, and their livelihoods are on the line in terms of this discussion as well if they're to be shut down, and I don't really think that's the answer either."
No one from the mussel industry spoke at the meeting.
'We feel encouraged by the support tonight'
Moving forward, the environmental committee that organized the public meeting will take the concerns of the people who spoke and present them to council. The committee hopes it will get the green light from council to create the stewardship committee for the bay.
"We feel encouraged by the support tonight. And again, we're encouraged by the number of stakeholders that spoke and supported constructing a stewardship plan. We'd like to have the aquaculture industry and the DFO participate in that. We feel positive that we have the support of the community and we will be moving ahead accordingly," said MacLean.
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