By Richard Bell
Residents along the Causeway in Three Fathom Harbour are raising questions about their recent discovery that the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture has issued a “special experimental licence” for a clam project literally in their backyards.
“We’ve always been told “Don’t dig clams there because it’s contaminated,’” long-time Causeway resident Susan Cakmak told the Cooperator. “I’ve never seen anyone digging clams here. We want documentation of what the agencies reviewed. There are so many other places that they could be doing clam farming than this tiny cove with residents and a beach people use.”
Murray Purcell first applied for a “special experimental license” in 2017 covering 14.2 hectares through his company, Searise Fisheries Ltd. This license allows the holder to “test or develop new technology or methods, carry out basic research, and test the technical feasibility of an aquaculture site.” The lease is for one year, and renewable for five years. The holder can choose to apply for a commercial aquaculture licence or lease, going through the normal application process for such leases. The province renewed this lease on September 8, 2022.
Purcell told the Cooperator that he had been in the clam business for 35 years, and sell clams to restaurants around the province, but not to the U.S. “I was born into the lobster business,” Purcell said in a phone interview. “I’m the number one seller of clams in the province. We have the best clams in Nova Scotia on the Eastern Shore. I’m here to help the clam fishery, to help people earn a living. This is an area that needs to be brought back to life for shellfish.”
Purcell does not know whether his experiment will succeed in growing clams. He described the bottom as “one sandy section, one flat, and one all muddy, up to your knees. It’s been closed off for contamination for at least 20 years.” He said he may turn the flat part over to mix the mud with sand to create a better environment for clams to grow. He is also planning to put in miners moss mats to provide a more hospitable landing place for spat (tiny clams only one-quarter of a millimeter long) to attach. He has already started building a 300-foot long, 4-floot high snow fence across the mouth of the cove. “The fence will slow the tide from dropping too fast, or coming in too fast,” Purcell said. “Slowing the water will help the spats stay around longer, enough to settle and start growing.”
Purcell has been building a plant on the coast in Seaforth to process clams taken from waters that are closed due to bacterial contamination. The plant will not be open for at least another year-and-a-half. In operation, the plant will bring fresh salt water in from the ocean and run the water through tanks containing the contaminated clams. As they filter the fresh salt water, the clams gradually expel the dangerous bacteria. The plant also uses UV light to kill off bacteria. By the end of 48 hours, the clams are clean enough to go to market. This cleaning process is called depuration. “I’ve built this plant with my own funds,” Purcell said. “I don’t get any grants, no bank loans, it’s all my own funds. I’ve been building as I got money.” There is only one operating depuration plant in Nova Scotia, at Innovative Fishery Projects Inc. in Saint Bernard, Digby County. There is one depuration plant in Maine.
Purcell’s original application in 2017 was sent out for review on June 12, 2019 to the bewildering array of government organizations with overlapping jurisdictions over clams: Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Transport Canada, Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Nova Scotia Department of Environment, Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture, Nova Scotia Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage, Nova Scotia Department of Lands and Forestry, Nova Scotia Department of Municipal Affairs, and Nova Scotia Office of Aboriginal Affairs.
Lack of Government Transparency
The Cooperator has spoken with several Causeway residents. Everyone we spoke with agreed that Purcell has followed provincial regulations in obtaining the permit. But they were all upset that the province had failed to consult them.
Causeway resident Adam Baldwin has been helping to organize residents to question the issuance of the clam lease. “Our issue here is less to do with Murray Purcell and more to do with the reaction of this government,” Baldwin told the Cooperator. “There are six or seven different provincial and federal regulators who put a stamp on this operation, and we cannot get any solid information out of them. We want to see the information they saw that made them think it was OK to put this next to our houses. How on earth can a site come to exist in such close proximity to peoples’ homes, and without anyone knowing this was coming along? And when we asked for info about how it happened, why can’t we get it as quick as a keystroke?”
All the residents we spoke with agreed that they had heard nothing about the issuing of this permit until the end of May 2023. The province did publish a request for public comments four times in the Royal Gazette in February 2021, and on its website during the period January 29, 2021, to February 26, 2021. The “Findings and Decision” document approving the license noted that “Zero submissions were received by NSDFA during the 30-day public comment period.”