Plan to export dried seaweed could be new money-maker for Vancouver Island

The Comox Valley could become known for a new agricultural export -- dried seaweed.

The provincial government has issued a licence to harvest 1,000 tonnes of the species mazzaella japonica — commonly known as Irish moss — from the shoreline between Deep Bay and Qualicum Beach.

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And the idea is that it would be transported to a currently disused barn at Beaver Meadow Farms on Anderton Road in Comox, which would be restored to house a new drying plant.

Comox Valley Regional District directors were told the dried seaweed would mainly be exported to countries where gelatinous carrageenan can be extracted from it.

That byproduct is widely used as a food additive, such as a thickener for ice cream and chocolate milk, and is a vegetarian alternative to gelatin. It is also used in some brands of toothpaste and shampoo.

Specialty seaweed drying has long been an industry in the Maritimes, but on a mass commercial scale it would be new to Vancouver Island.

Huge amounts of Irish moss are swept up on to Island shorelines after storms every year, Beaver Meadows Farms' agent, Jonathan Biley, told rural directors.

In places it could be a metre deep on the beach, and as it rotted away gave off a pungent smell.

The potential volume along the 21 kilometres of shoreline that had been granted an experimental Ministry of Agriculture harvesting licence could yield as much of the specialty seaweed as the whole of the Maritimes' output, he suggested.

The issue before directors was whether they should advise the Agricultural Land Commission to approve the use of the old barn, as seaweed drying is not a listed agricultural activity in B.C. Only approved agricultural activities are supposed to take place within the Agricultural Land Reserve, which includes most of the land at Beaver Meadow Farms.

Area C director Edwin Grieve said he was concerned there needed to be effective controls over the harvesting to avoid any detrimental effect on other marine life. When kelp was removed in the past, he recalled, it had a serious impact on herring spawning rates.

Biley said the harvesting would only occur above the waterline once the Irish moss had been swept ashore, where it would die naturally. They would not be taking it from under the water.

Grieve said he had no objection to the application going forward to the ALC for them to assess and decide, but he did not think directors should make a recommendation on officially supporting it.

They did not have the expertise on whether harvesting was a good idea or not, he suggested, and what effects it might have on other aquaculture businesses.

But planning staff said the issue for them was about land use. whether the farm barn was an appropriate place for a drying plant. The decision on harvesting was one for the province.

In the end the committee voted 2-1 to express support for the application when it is sent to the ALC, with directors Bruce Jolliffe (Area A) and Jim Gillis (Area B) being in favour. They noted the harvesting was for an experimental period of two years, and was supported by the regional agrologist, Jill Hatfield.

The decision will need to the formal endorsement of the full board at the end of the month before it can be sent off to the ALC for a final decision.

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