If you want to teach people about the importance of the shellfish industry, feed them oysters.
That’s the philosophy of the Deep Bay Marine Field Station, a shellfish industry research facility about a two-and-a-half hour drive north of Victoria on Vancouver Island’s east coast. We are about to become beneficiaries of that philosophy.
We are standing in the station’s high-tech industrial kitchen, watching chef Sarah Leduc slide a tray full of oysters-on-the-half-shell into an industrial oven. The aroma of bacon, onions and garlic engulfs the state-of-the-art kitchen, and it’s difficult to remember that this is a research facility, not a restaurant.
Leduc knows her way around the kitchen. She spent years working as a chef at hotels, resorts and hospitals. While working in Montreal, she became homesick for Canada’s West Coast and also considered a career change. She enrolled in the Fisheries and Aquaculture Diploma program at Vancouver Island University, and first came to the field station as a student before the facility was open.
“Little by little as the station has grown, I’ve become the resident algologist and chef,” Leduc says.
The title means she is responsible for cultivating, harvesting and feeding algae to the several types of oysters growing in the station’s experimental tanks.
Leduc also directs the preparation of meals for special events and groups who come to learn about the shellfish industry.
“We’ve had a lot of community programs (for adults and school children) in the last two years,” says Stephanie Richards, spokesperson for the Centre for Shellfish Research, who shows us around the facility. Although the marketing budget is small, “people are learning about us via word of mouth.”
The emphasis during the presentations is how the field station is helping Vancouver Island’s 100-year-old shellfish farming industry become more environmentally, economically and socially sustainable. For instance, “one of our research projects is trying to develop hatching techniques so we can keep the Olympic oyster alive,” Richards explains. “It’s never been done before.”
The tiny Olympic oysters are not cultivated for food – they are too small to eat – but for their amazing ability to filter and clean sea water where consumable oysters grow.
Visitors also can get up close and personal with local sea life.
“Our touch tanks are hugely popular with visitors,” Richards says. “They contain all local species and are collected by students. We are a hands-on learning facility involved with university students and school kids.”
Even the other-worldly, ultra-modern field station building is a lesson in sustainability.
It earned the prestigious Platinum LEED Certification this year because its impact on the environment is minimal. Those who strive for this certification must design buildings that use water and energy efficiently, safeguard the surrounding environment, use “green” materials and demonstrate a high indoor-environmental quality. Only 30 buildings in Canada have attained this designation.
“Our building actually lives and breathes on its own,” Richards likes to say.
Indoor oxygen levels are monitored, lights throughout are photosensitive, there are air vents in the floor, the building is heated using excess energy from other processes. There also are plenty of dramatic glass windows to take advantage of every bit of light during Vancouver Island’s dark and rainy winters.
It’s best to visit the Deep Bay Marine Field Station in summer and early fall. It’s about a 35-minute drive from popular beach towns Parksville and Qualicum Beach. For more information, visit www.viu.ca/deepbay/.
E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.