The chitin conundrum
A visit to scenic Bay de Verde in March is a peaceful, moving experience. On a bright day, the sun sparkles off the Atlantic Ocean and the snow-covered terrain is in stark contrast to the colourful houses and buildings that dominate the landscape. A dozen or so small fishing boats are pulled onto the slip, some propped upright with sticks, or leaning on their sides as if incapacitated by the land.
It’s quiet. It’s cold. And to a first-time visitor, there’s a sense of contentment.
But beneath the surface, there’s tension and uncertainty in this community of less than 500, located at the end of the road on the north shore of Conception Bay. At a time when most of rural Newfoundland is struggling to survive, Bay de Verde is facing a host of other issues.
It’s arguably the busiest fishing port in the province, and is a beehive of activity in spring, summer and fall. The local town council oversees an annual budget of some $1.33 million, significantly more than many larger towns in the region, and there’s full employment for those who want to work. In fact, people come from far and wide for jobs at the local crab and shrimp seafood processing plant.
But all this activity also brings its share of challenges and problems. Like any port where seafood processing takes place, there’s the smell. Some call it the smell of money and success. Others hold their nose and quietly complain that something should be done.
And with millions of pounds of crab and shrimp being landed and processed each fishing season, there’s also vast quantities of waste, mostly in the form of shells that are disposed of at the old municipal dump.
The company that operates the plant, Quinlan Brothers Limited, would like to stop this dumping and start making use of the shells, which are “ food quality” when they come out of the plant.
The company is proposing to establish a full-scale chitin/chitosan production facility adjacent to its existing plant. It’s a multi-million-dollar undertaking that would see the company partner with the Marine Institute and Memorial University in an attempt to establish “the most efficient and technologically advanced chitin plants built to date,” according to a document prepared by the company and submitted to the provincial government.
It sounds encouraging, and would bring at least another half-dozen jobs to the town. But this proposal has a history in the region, and it’s not all rosy.
Initially, the company proposed establishing the plant 12 kilometres away in Old Perlican, where it also operates a groundfish plant. The project was given the green light by then environment and conservation minister Charlene Johnson, who is the local MHA.
But Old Perlican residents rose up, circulated a petition, and the application was shelved. There were concerns with, among other things, the use of chemicals such as hydrochloric acid, and the discharge of effluent into the town’s sewer system.
Two years later, the company is back with its application, but this time to the Town of Bay de Verde. Earlier this month, council voted 4-3 to grant conditional approval. But it’s apparent that many of the same concerns that soured Old Perlican residents are alive and well in Bay de Verde. Thus, the conundrum. Leaders in Bay de Verde understand the volatility of the Newfoundland fishery, and are keen to ensure the industry remains a viable player in their town for years to come. With all the talk of rationalization and downsizing, towns like Bay de Verde are looking for every avenue possible to strengthen its connection to the fishery. Some argue that a chitin plant would do just that. But opponents of the project say the environmental risks are not worth the number of jobs that will be created, and some are calling for a plebiscite that would give every resident a say in the decision.
What to do? It’s a difficult issue, to be sure, and there’s a risk the company may throw up its hands and walk away from the project. But citizens of Bay de Verde have a right to decide what kind of industry sets up in their backyards, and perhaps that’s the answer here.
Why not let the environmental approval process follow its natural course, and once all the questions have been answered and the experts decide whether or not the project should proceed, put the issue back into the hands of residents in the form of a plebiscite?
It seems only fair.