Disappearing shellfish on B.C.’s coast confounding experts

WATCH: Some are worried that BC’s shellfish industry is in crisis. Jennifer Palma looks at the die off of scallops and oysters and why it’s a troubling indicator of the health of our oceans.

What was once a one-year slump has now turned to a systemic crisis. Shellfish are disappearing from B.C.’s coast – and nobody is quite sure why.

“It’s still a little bit of a mystery,” says Chris Harley, a marine biologist at the University of British Columbia.

“We’re not living with the same ocean our parents were living with 30 years ago. It could be warmer water, it could be more acidic water, it could be disease.”

The problems began in around 2009 and 2010 and have persisted, forcing businesses to adapt and sometimes downsize.

“We’ve gone from something like 45 employees down to 12. We produce other species for other growers, but our primary focus was scallops,” says Rob Saunders, whose company Island Scallops lost 10 million scallops in 2013.

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“Recently there has been no local scallops at all. The supply’s gone,” says Dave Ratcliff, manager of the Lobster Man on Granville Island, who have been forced to bring in frozen scallops from the east coast to meet demand.

Most believe the main culprit is the increasing acidity of the local waters, making them more vulnerable to diseases.

“Animals that build shells are having more trouble because the water is more acidic. If their predators do a little better because the water is more acidic, then that’s doubly bad,” says Harley.

A group of scientists from UBC, Canada and Asia are waiting to see if they will be selected for a federal grant to see what’s causing the decline. Until then, researchers will continue to speculate.

“We often care about particular species, but climate change affect the entire ecosystem,” says Harley. “There’s all kind of things that are changing at once.”

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