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.

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