There have been major changes in the way the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries is running the Shellfish Enhancement Program, resulting in a major shakeup in the group representing the public oyster fishery.

In the past, the department has provided funding to the P.E.I. Shellfish Association to collect oyster spat, which is grown and spread on public fishing beds. The effort was coordinated via the Bideford River biological station in the western part of the province, which the association took over years ago from the federal government.

However, the province has now decided to issue a request for proposals for a contractor. The winning proposal will have to demonstrate an ability to source local oyster seed and spread it on public fishing areas. The department has indicated it will be seeking input on seed spreading locations from fishers active in the oyster fishery, and industry representatives will be invited to observe the enhancement activities when they occur.

A statement from the province indicates the change results from challenges the department had in finalizing the 2016 Shellfish Enhancement Program contract. The department indicates, “As with any contract that involves the spending of public funds, the department requires documentation that indicates the public funds were spent on the activities covered by the contract. This documentation includes having the contractor provide the department with paid invoices and cancelled cheques. In the case of the 2016 Shellfish Enhancement Program contract, the department did not receive the necessary documentation to close the contract.”

The department statement goes on to say, “Department representatives met with the Shellfish Association board and accounting authorities a number of times to try to address this issue. The department also provided additional funding in 2016 for independent monitoring of the enhancement activities. This monitoring did not occur as the Shellfish Association did not sign the contract with the monitoring body. As a result, the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries chose to move to a different delivery model for 2017.”

Several members of the association petitioned for a special meeting to seek answers on the issue from the group’s board of directors. However, that meeting was cancelled after long-time president Brenda Campbell and four of the six other members of the board of directors tendered their resignations.

Campbell suggested in several media interviews the government’s actions were in response to the decision by the association to ask for a judicial review of the Aquaculture Leasing Board and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans allowing some growers with mussel leases to add oysters to their operation. She says the province also seemed to object to the group’s call for a separate fisheries minister, something the P.E.I. Fishermen’s Association has also been seeking for the past two years.

The department will be contacting an independent monitoring body to assess the effectiveness of the enhancement activities. Once public fishing beds are identified for enhancement activities, the monitor will assess the bed. When the oyster seed is spread, the monitor will conduct a post-assessment to determine the effectiveness of the enhancement activities. The enhanced oyster beds will also be monitored in the long-term.