SpruceRoots Magazine - March 2000
Waste Not the Cockles
By Nicholas Reynolds
Meandering through a maze of U-Pick strawberry fields is as close as some of us get to harvesting what we eat. Spending time outdoors collecting the bounty of nature seems to have been reduced to a recreational past time for self-esteem building. And, in a society where major transportation infrastructures turn local foods into global commodities, there is a tendency not to consider where food came from, or what we have, until it's gone.
Recently, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans prohibited dozens of coastal communities from harvesting seafood in their vicinities due to sewage contamination. Nearly every community from Port Hardy to Vancouver has had to stop harvesting from the foreshore. The principle reason for this ban is that conventional sewage management has neglected to address the debilitating effects which are washing onto the shores. Although pollution caused by myopic mismanagement and lousy sewage treatment systems has curbed our shoreline eating habits, another deeper problem lurks just below the surface. And that is, that as long as butter clams and sea urchins aren't valued, then pollution is only a symptom of mismanagement and the real tragedy is the loss of this natural food source.
Many people have memories of harvesting shellfish along the shores of Masset Inlet, and these memories are nearer than a walk to the grocery store. Elder Pat Weir remembers a city of lanterns lighting the winter evening shores of Old Masset. Well over 100 people would gather to harvest seafood every 12 days or so in conjunction with winter tides. Mr. Weir says that the preservation of food stocks was essential to keeping the local food-based economy intact. Sustainable harvesting methods were intertwined within a value system that maintained the village's standards of living. However, Old Masset's ageless harvest of butter clams, chitons and sea urchins ended sometime during the 1950's, and Mr. Weir attributes its decline to the increase in Greater Masset's domestic sewage.
For many communities in Canada and around the world, alternative sewage management has become the norm. Within the last decade Solar Ecology Wastewater Treatment Systems has incorporated biological principles into the treatment of sewage and industrial wastewater. This process has successfully duplicated the intricate functions of wetland ecosystems. Naturalists often refer to wetlands as the "bladders of the earth" - the natural process of decomposing and recycling waste derived from animals in their habitat. These new treatment systems work without conventional and harmful chemicals such as alum and chlorine and as a bonus produce reusable fuels like methane and sulfur dioxide. They are also attractive to communities where water supplies are limited, by taking advantage of the treated water and recycling and reusing it for non-potable applications such as irrigation and toilet flushing.
In Vermont, the town of South Burlington has a population similar to Masset and Queen Charlotte City, and has had an alternative sewage treatment system since 1995. The facility processes up to 80,000 gallons per day (GPD) of municipal waste, a volume typically generated by 1600 people. The system, termed a "living machine" by a local service company, has proven to be workable in a residential area because of its smaller size, aesthetic appearance, and negligible odor. Ramin Abrishamian a director for Living Technologies Inc., an alternative waste management company, estimates that for a community of approximately 1500 people, the costs of implementation for an alternate waste system would be around $1.6 million.
In 1990, the body care company, The Body Shop was inspired to save money and eliminate toxic discharges from its bottling facilities in Toronto. A relationship between nature and industry was illuminated when they realized that the treatment process included the same species that were used within the company's products. While the system greenhouse offers a heating source for the building, the "living machine" reclaims wastewater for reuse in the businesses restrooms. Although the facility does not have population the size of a municipality, three hours of maintenance every week meet the plants operational requirements.
Although well used municipal tax dollars can reverse the direction of the shellfish and ecological depletion on our shores, the incentive do so seems to be absent. The restriction to gathering food from the beach in front of Masset is not the problem In fact, there is no problem as long as shell fish harvesting is not valued within our communities as a staple food source.
The odd thing is that seafood is cherished on Haida Gwaii, but the focus seems to be on economic sustenance rather than biological nourishment. There is no denying that economic sustenance is vital to the health of our communities, but, when does a natural resource like shellfish begin having value above and beyond a commodity?
Convenience is a key element to the habituation of shellfish harvesting. When harvesting becomes inconvenient then people lose the connection to the resource. But an even greater obstruction to the validity of a food-based economy is our desire to supplant a cultural value for a popular market value. We are caught under the shadow of a paradox - our apparent neglect, disconnection and the consequence of devaluing resources found along the shore, show that we have forgotten that ecology is as vital to our health as it is to our economy. We all know that to survive, we need the land and sea the which surrounds us, but by contrast, the land and sea functions quite well without us. The health of BC's south coast has been bridled by its growth in population, but here on Haida Gwaii we are still within reach of restorative measures for shellfish populations. And, though we have not yet identified that sewage contamination is disastrous for our communities, it is easy to see where this issue is going - just look at our southern neighbors problems, and look into our future.
For some the line between symptom and solution may be hazy, but for others a solution to this problem is low-tech, affordable, and we don't need a prescription. We only need to acknowledge that our heads and hearts are inherently linked to the shores under our feet, and that their value far outweighs the nearest plastic wrapped competitors.
SpruceRoots Magazine - March 2000