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Beecher Bay hopes Chinese firm's deal leads to band jobs

Apr 26 2012

The Beecher Bay (Scia'new) First Nation, whose members struggle with chronic unemployment and poverty, has signed an agreement in principle with a Chinese company to build an aquaculture hatchery and processing plant on the East Sooke reserve.

The only catch to the proposal, which would see an investment of about $1.7 million by the Wen Lian Aquaculture Co. Ltd., is that the company wants a hatchery licence approved within six weeks so production can start for the 2013 season.

Approval is needed from Fisheries and Oceans, Environment Canada, Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which is a challenge, admitted Aaron Reith, Beecher Bay economic development officer.

"But, by chance, there's a meeting [today] in Nanaimo to discuss openings and Chief Russ Chipps and I are on the agenda," Reith said.

DFO could not say Wednesday whether a decision would be made at the meeting or whether it was possible to meet the deadline.

Reith and Chipps were optimistic that government would not derail a project that could change the face of the community.

"This is really exciting," Reith said. "It's going to be a gamechanger for everyone."

Wen Lian, which already has a hatchery in Royston, specializes in scallop, geoduck and sea cucumber seeds. The adult shellfish are then exported by the company.

"Chief and council have been looking to return to traditional values and stewardship and aquaculture really fits well," Reith said.

Tests show the water is clean despite occasional closures, Reith said. Contaminated soil on the reserve, which led to a closure in the bay, was remediated last summer at a cost of $100,000.

Under the agreement in principle, Wen Lian would build and own the hatchery. The processing plant would be a joint venture, with the band holding a 50 per cent interest. Part of the band's share of capital costs would be paid in labour, such as land clearing, and some would come from future profits, Chipps said.

The company, which wants a 15-year renewable lease on about 1.6 hectares of reserve land on the water side of Becher Bay Road, has also agreed to help the band set up its own aquaculture operation and sea cucumber farm.

"Wen Lian is going to teach the membership methods and technology," Reith said.

Employment for band members would be part of the agreement, he said. Initially there would be three or four jobs, but, eventually, the project should provide opportunities for most members, Reith said.

Chipps said the project has support within the community, which has about 50 per cent unemployment. "We had a meeting and aquaculture was the community's idea," he said.


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