Ottawa gives $40M to Atlantic shellfish farmers hit by post-tropical storm Fiona

SPRINGBROOK, P.E.I. —East Coast mussel and oyster farmers hit by post-tropical storm Fiona are receiving $40 million over two years to help them recover from the damage and build back more resilient systems.

Ginette Petitpas Taylor, minister responsible for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, made the announcement Friday at a facility operated by Prince Edward Aqua Farms, a mussel growing operation on the northwestern coast of the Island.

Shellfish farmers in Atlantic Canada and Quebec's Îles-de-la-Madeleine were among the businesses battered by Fiona's powerful storm surge and waves, and are the latest to receive a portion of the $300 million fund being provided for sectors that couldn't access other federal and provincial disaster relief programs.

"We know the waves were crashing in and out and a lot of their gear was in the water, and as a result there was a lot of product lost," said Petitpas Taylor, in an interview following a news conference.

She said the money will assist with storm damage repairs, equipment replacement, lost shellfish, and will also fund longer-term projects to help the industry develop infrastructure better able to cope with extreme weather.

The minister said the storm had a particularly devastating effect on many of Atlantic Canada's 266 shellfish farmers, noting they are major employers that generate revenue in rural communities.

"This is probably the sector that was hardest hit by the storm, and (its production) is equivalent to $200 million to the economy here in Atlantic Canada and there are 2,200 people employed," she said.

The minister said a portion of the funds will go towards making the industry more resilient to climate-change related extreme weather, but she didn't have details on precisely how much.

"We certainly want to make sure that the investments in the rebuilds and the equipment purchased, we're hoping those investments made will be able to weather future storms," she said.

"Is there an exact percentage (of funding for adaptation to future storms), not necessarily. But we want to make sure we can build for the future, and building for the future means making sure it is resilient and ready for future storms."

Federal summaries of existing climate science have noted that fossil fuel emissions are increasing the intensity of tropical storms that enter the region — and predict the storms will continue to hit with Fiona-like power due to the warmer temperatures off the region's coasts.

That can wreak havoc on the strings of mussels and oysters growing in exposed bays, particularly if they're not deeply submerged in the water.

Simon Ryder-Burbidge of the Ecology Action Centre said in an interview that it's important for Ottawa to consider the long-term durability of the aquaculture systems as it provides funding.

"Rather than continuing to try to recover lost infrastructure we need to do long-term planning ... and make sure they (shellfish farmers) have systems that are resilient in terms of storms that will come in the future," he said.

Ryder-Burbidge also said the provincial government needs to do more research on ensuring shellfish sites are in bays where there's shelter that will protect them from storms.

"There's a lot of data missing as far as to where shellfish infrastructure could best be located. That's desperately needed," he said.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada has called post-tropical storm Fiona the most expensive extreme weather event ever recorded in the Atlantic region, causing $800 million in insured damage.

During the Sept. 24 hurricane, homes were swept out to sea, while bridges, businesses, airports and other infrastructure were severely damaged.

In October, federal officials announced that of the $300 million fund, about $100 million would be put towards recovery of lost fishing gear and repair to small-craft harbours across Atlantic Canada and Quebec.

Petitpas Taylor said announcements for assistance to other sectors will be made in the weeks to come.

— Story by Michael Tutton in Halifax.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 20, 2023.

The Canadian Press