British entrepreneur Giles Cadman received bad news in early 2020.
That January, the Virgin Islands Planning Authority rejected his company’s proposal to build a nearly three-acre lobster farm beside the protected Beef Island Channel, citing environmental concerns and allegations about Mr. Cadman’s smaller lobster farm in Pockwood Pond.
“The operation has been illegal for over a decade and repeatedly restarts without permission despite notice to stop operations,” stated the rejection letter, referencing claims made by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. “They have been given the opportunity to adjust their business model, which impacts local wild populations, and have never [sought] to do so, instead repeatedly requesting that the laws be changed to accommodate their business model.”
By September 2020, however, Mr. Cadman’s representatives had successfully lobbied government officials to amend the 2003 Fisheries Regulations, and they applied again for planning permission.
This time, they had better luck: Without holding a public meeting, the Planning Authority approved the East End lobster farm on June 30.
Mr. Cadman told the Beacon that his existing operation never broke the law, and he described his company Caribbean Sustainable Fisheries as an aquaculture pioneer previously hampered by dated regulations that have now been amended in a way that accommodates the system used at his half-acre Pockwood Pond farm.
Government officials echoed parts of that account: They said their earlier concerns were eased by an environmental impact study and other answers from CSF that convinced them that the proposed East End expansion could help boost ongoing efforts to diversify the territory’s “blue economy.”
But not everyone believes the project is a good idea.
After the 2.87-acre site was mostly clear-cut in recent weeks, more than 20 people signed a “landowners’ petition” in September calling for a stop order and raising concerns about potential impacts such as effluent discharge, noise, “noxious odours” and light pollution from the proposed farm.
Some fishers also questioned the plan, particularly given that it is next to a protected area.
“I’m not in favour of any company wanting to farm lobster here in the BVI,” Anegada fisherman Mark Soares said, adding that public dialogue should have preceded planning approval. “I think everyone is entitled to a voice.”
Residents have aired similar concerns on social media, though others have defended the project as a potential economic boon that could ease pressure on wild lobster populations.
The earlier planning application was submitted on Dec. 4, 2019 by Mr. Cadman’s company Venator Holdings, which owns the East End site. It was refused about two months later.
The Feb. 3, 2020 rejection letter from Chief Planner Greg Adams explained that the Planning Authority had denied the application because of concerns raised by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries in apparent reference to Mr. Cadman’s Pockwood Pond farm.
Besides alleging that the operation had “been illegal” for more than a decade, the letter stated that it still did not have all the necessary approvals from government.
“Nor have they ever sought to apply or pay any of the associated fees for the fisheries clearances (aquaculture licence, etc.),” the letter stated.
The operation also “broke several laws” during its two-year pilot phase, according to the letter.
“The establishment was not recommended for establishment and they went ahead anyway,” it added. “No scientific evidence has been submitted that proves the establishment would have a positive impact on the community.”
Additionally, the letter noted that the East End plan was “not well viewed” by “the fishers,” and that the Fisheries Advisory Council had “voted to disallow any support for expansion or continued [study] without change in the business model.”
The rejection also cited “general concerns” about the “potential negative impacts” of the proposed development on the protected Beef Island Channel, a “crucial habitat for other marine species.”
Mr. Cadman, however, told a different story.
He said the planned expansion will be environmentally friendly, and he strongly denied that CSF ever broke any laws or operated without permission.
“You are quoting a disgruntled member of the fisheries department [sic] personal view, one which was littered with falsehoods and resulted in internal measures,” he wrote in an email when asked about the rejection letter. “Needless to say, if the person’s personal opinion was correct, we would have been sanctioned for breaking the law.”
Mr. Cadman instead painted CSF as a pioneer that was navigating untested waters when it applied more than 14 years ago for an aquaculture licence for the half-acre Pockwood Pond farm.
That farm’s business model, he said, involves capturing tiny baby lobsters called puerulus from the ocean and raising them to adulthood.
But when CSF was established in 2005, the 2003 Fishing Regulations prohibited the possession of any “undersized” lobster with a carapace length of less than 3.5 inches or a tail weight of less than 12 ounces.
Despite that ban, Mr. Cadman said, government officials eventually gave him permission to collect lobster puerulus from the ocean.
“Both governments have been absolutely great,” he said, adding, “They’ve made it difficult — put the right kind of challenges in front of us; made sure everything we’ve done has been supported with science — … but they haven’t put in hurdles that we haven’t been able to overcome with data.”
CSF eventually received an aquaculture licence valid for Jan. 2, 2007 to Jan. 2, 2008, according to Mr. Cadman. After that, he said, the company was told it didn’t need another.
“In a meeting with the [attorney general], the minister and fisheries department, it was determined that, given we abandoned plans to use sea cages at all, we would not need an aquaculture licence because we were conducting mariculture in tanks and ponds,” Mr. Cadman wrote in an email.
He did not provide documentation of this agreement, but he did provide the Beacon with a copy of the cover page of the 2007 licence, which was not stamped or signed. Asked for the rest of the licence, he responded, “This will take time to locate, I do not recall how many pages.”
He never provided a full copy, however, and attempts to obtain one from the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Labour were also unsuccessful.
Mr. Cadman also provided full copies of two one-year test fishing licences that authorised CSF to catch wild puerulus: one for February 2008 to February 2009 and another for January 2011 to January 2012.
“I cannot locate the others,” he wrote in an email. “I believe ’08 was the second and 2014/15 was the last. In 2015/16, we had provided enough data to the fisheries department to prove that we were catching lobsters in the planktonic phase. And although the law didn’t cover the planktonic phase, as it wasn’t contemplated in the ordinance, it could still be considered a marine organism, so we have a commercial fishing licence to cover that element.”
All three licences he provided restricted where CSF could sell its products.
The aquaculture licence required that the company sell to the BVI Fishing Complex or to “any other market authorised in writing by the chief conservation and fisheries officer.”
The test fishing licences required CSF to sell no more than 10 percent of its products to local markets, with the rest marketed internationally.
Mr. Cadman, however, previously had told the Beacon that CSF had sold its lobsters to local restaurants and other customers in the VI before Hurricane Irma, though it started shipping some abroad after the storm.
Asked later if CSF had ever received permission to sell more than 10 percent locally or to sell to a market other than the Fisheries Complex, he did not directly answer the question.
“I do not think you understand that all licences require you to offer your catch to the Fishing Complex,” he replied in an email. “We are not in breach of any fishing regulation. If you have specific evidence of such a breach that we do not know about, then provide it to us. Your question overall is vexatious and has no merit.”
Though Mr. Cadman insisted that the Pockwood Pond farm had special permission to operate, he said CSF representatives nevertheless lobbied government officials to amend the 2003 Fisheries Regulations to better accommodate the farm’s business model.
“Since early 2015, we have worked tirelessly with all the various government departments to follow the rules and provide information as requested in a timely and orderly manner,” according to a CSF statement he provided.
Last year, their efforts bore fruit.
On Sept. 8, 2020, Deputy Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley, the minister responsible for fisheries, signed an amendment that exempts licensed aquaculture establishments from the prohibition on possessing undersized lobsters, as well as another ban on possession or selling lobsters during the annual closed season.
Similar exemptions were included for conch aquaculture. The amendment was Gazetted on Sept. 24.
Dr. Wheatley told the Beacon that he decided to review the issue after a 2019 visit from Kelvin Penn, who used to act as head of the then-Conservation and Fisheries Department.
“He supported it strongly before he left the position and actually came to me and made an appeal for me to take a look at it,” Dr. Wheatley said, adding, “I investigated for myself. I visited the operation, and Caribbean Sustainable Fisheries did mention that there was some misunderstandings with the conservation department, and since then they didn’t believe that the conservation department truly understood their model.”
After touring the Pockwood Pond farm and meeting with CSF personnel, he said, he came to understand that the company had been “engaging in a practice that was essentially illegal based on Fisheries Regulations” by catching lobster puerulus from the ocean.
“So they were not able to have an aquaculture licence because of that fundamental breach of the law,” Dr. Wheatley said.
But CSF, he said, directed his team to various peer-reviewed articles that convinced him that the practice of catching puerulus can be carried out sustainably without damaging local lobster populations.
Mr. Penn, he stressed, “strongly supported” the model.
Mr. Cadman and CSF biologist Dr. Nik Sachlikidis also told the Beacon the system is sustainable: In the wild, they said, only a small fraction of lobster pueruli survive, which means that capturing some to raise on land can greatly increase the number that grow to adulthood without having a detrimental impact on the natural population. Mr. Cadman said CSF is also willing to release lobsters back into the ocean after raising them past the puerulus stage in order to help replenish wild populations.
Aquaculture experts who spoke with the Beacon said that a certain number of pueruli likely can be harvested without major adverse effects, but they also warned that no puerulus supply is unlimited and that any removal from the wild should be carefully monitored and studied.
“Once it catches on, the sustainability factor then goes down,” said Dr. Michael Rice, a fisheries and aquaculture professor at the University of Rhode Island. “It basically collapses, because when it comes right down to it, their seed supply is from a natural fishery, so there’s only so much you can get out of it.”
Dr. Wheatley acknowledged that some concerns about the practice had been expressed by officers in the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, which was established in place of the Conservation and Fisheries Department following the February 2019 general election. But he said he “analysed the concerns” and decided to move forward.
“What I attempted to do was bridge that gap, and I put [CSF] in touch with the chief agriculture and fisheries officer, Mr. Theodore James, and Mr. Theodore James was in support after we had this engagement,” he said, adding, “So in that specific circumstance, we made that amendment not just to accommodate their business practice but to accommodate what the science said and update our laws accordingly.”
Mr. James has headed the department since July 2019 — including the time of the February 2020 rejection letter that accused the Pockwood Pond farm of breaking laws — but he confirmed that the company had answered his department’s previous concerns.
“They answered the questions that we asked them to answer,” he told the Beacon.
Dr. Wheatley also said he believes the project is economically viable.
“It’s my understanding just speaking from the Caribbean Sustainable Fisheries people that they invested millions upon millions of dollars to get it to this point, and it was a lot of trial and error,” he said, adding, “I did get the sense that they had — quote, unquote — figured it out.”
The previous minister responsible for fisheries, former Deputy Premier Dr. Kedrick Pickering, declined to comment.
The day after Dr. Wheatley signed the amended Fisheries Regulations, CSF submitted a new planning application for the East End expansion on Sept. 9, 2020. Like the previously rejected application, it requested permission to build a $5 million facility beside the protected Beef Island Channel.
The new application explains that the company’s ultimate goal is to establish a closed-cycle hatchery where lobsters would be bred and raised from eggs, eventually eliminating the need to source tiny babies from the wild.
But until the hatchery is functional, the facility will continue collecting and raising wild puerulus from VI waters, as well as purchasing small legal-sized lobsters from fishers and growing them further for export, the application states.
Mr. Cadman said the facility will take about 18 months to build, and when in full operation it will employ about 40 people full time and 25 part time and eventually produce about 255,000 pounds of lobster annually for export.
CSF also submitted a “Limited Environmental Impact Report,” which was commissioned from L. Potter & Associates, a company owned by former Planning Authority Chairman Louis Potter.
Mr. Potter told the Beacon he carried out the review with the help of Kelvin Penn, the former chief conservationist who previously appealed to Dr. Wheatley in support of CSF.
The report provides a positive review of the planned expansion.
“The lobster farm by CSF will be a viable economic project that will bring many benefits to the community and the BVI, and the adverse impacts will be negligible,” it states.
The report also suggests that the project will not damage the Beef Island Channel, which is designated as a fisheries protected area under the 2003 Fisheries Regulations.
Those regulations ban “any development activity, whether terrestrial or otherwise, which may or is likely to adversely impact” a fisheries protected area.
But in an interview with the Beacon, Mr. Cadman and CSF biologist Dr. Nik Sachlikidis echoed the report, saying the project poses no threat to the channel.
“It’s an environmentally friendly, low-impact way to do it,” Dr. Sachlikidis said, adding that the farm’s recirculation system will be designed to “capture any waste before it’s discharged, unlike sea cages or something like that.”
Asked if any discharge will be released into the ocean, Dr. Sachlikidis said, “Not high-nutrient discharge, no. That’s all taken care of with the [environmental study]. There’s limits within the appropriate boundaries, and monitoring programmes.”
The environmental report describes a system where water discharged from the farm will be treated and filtered through a mangrove wetland and a seepage trench before entering the ocean through sand layers. Besides a monitoring programme, it also recommends other mitigation measures, including a quality-control system, periodic inspections from government regulators, and light-glare screening.
“If the designs and all the mitigation measures are followed, the project will have minimal negative impact on the environment, and it will be a positive addition to the community,” the report states.
Gov’t held no public meeting
Government planners didn’t host a public meeting before approving the East End expansion, but a small notice published in the Beacon on March 11 and 18 invited the public to review the application at the Town and Country Planning Department and submit input within two weeks. Additionally, L. Potter & Associates conducted a virtual meeting with 11 area landowners on April 8 as part of the environmental review process.
“Because of such low environmental impact, there wasn’t a specific requirement to do a public meeting,” Dr. Sachlikidis said. “But through our [environmental impact assessment] we undertook it anyway of our own volition.”
A section of the environmental report summarises the Zoom meeting, suggesting that attendees largely supported the expansion after their various concerns were addressed.
“Most of the property owners expressed their support for the proposed project and extended good luck and best wishes,” the report states. “They saw the project as being beneficial to the entire territory by putting it on the map, having some level of prosperity and education benefits and opportunities for the citizens.”
The summary added that a questionnaire about the proposed project was emailed to meeting attendees, but they did not return it.
Nevertheless, some meeting attendees and other landowners were not pleased to learn of the project’s June 30 approval.
A “landowners’ petition” submitted to the Planning Authority on Sept. 24 claims that four major concerns raised at the meeting weren’t adequately addressed: potential noise pollution, “noxious odours,” effluent discharge, and light pollution.
“The above four points were raised and discussed at length, agreeing that either L. Potter and Associates and/or the company would get back to us, the landowners, with answers to these fundamental issues,” states the petition, which is signed by David Alford Penn, William Penn, Romney Penn, Valentine Lewis, Eren Frett, Gerda Frett, Delma Maduro, Orris Thomas, Lisa Penn-Lettsome, Glanville Penn, and others. “We have heard nothing from either of those two parties on these issues since. We are therefore dismayed to learn that the Planning Authority board has granted approval despite the concerns and valid objections of the adjoining BVIslander and other landholders.”
The petition continues by claiming that the area around the planned farm is residential.
“There are ongoing multimillion-dollar residential developments adjacent, above, and in front of the proposed site,” it adds. “There are several established residences through the area, some directly overlooking the site. These properties are in danger of degradation of value through the presence of the potential effects of this project, as outlined above.”
Because of such concerns, the signatories requested a stop order to “allow a fair evaluation of the potential threats to landowners’ interests” as they said was requested at the Zoom meeting.
Mr. Adams, the chief planner, said last week that no stop order had been issued, and that his department doesn’t have the authority to stop projects that are following the terms of their approval simply because of a request from community members.
Mr. Adams declined to comment on the decision not to hold a public meeting.
“That’s the Planning Authority’s discretion,” he said.
Planning Authority Chairman Charles Cooper declined to comment, and Mr. Cadman said last month that he hadn’t seen the petition and therefore couldn’t comment on it. Dr. Wheatley said he hadn’t seen the petition either, but he had heard that some landowners were concerned.
“I can completely understand that, of course, because it’s a beautiful area of the BVI,” he said, adding, “So I think it’s for the Caribbean Sustainable Fisheries to let those persons know that the operation will not result in the degradation of the environment; it’s not going to be something that will impact the local residents there in a negative way in terms of either the look or the smell of it or anything else like that.”
Opposition Leader Marlon Penn (R-D8), who represents the East End area that includes the farm site, did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Fishers contacted by the Beacon also expressed concerns about the project.
Mr. Soares said last month he hadn’t heard much about the plan, but that he regularly catches lobsters and believes a farm could adversely impact him and other fishers by introducing new competition.
Even if the farm exports all its lobsters abroad, he said, it could compete with VI fishers who wish to do the same.
“There are ways to do it, but the scale that I’ve been hearing, I don’t think it’s what’s needed here in the BVI,” he said.
He added that he worries about the potential environmental ramifications.
“I think a lot of investigation’s needed,” he said.
George Smith, another Anegada fisherman, said he hadn’t previously heard about the project, but he too is sceptical.
“I would say I don’t like the idea honestly,” he said, adding, “It’s not a benefit to us; it’s more benefit to him.”
He added that he also would have liked the opportunity to weigh in on the project before it was approved.
“They should have had a meeting and got everybody’s input,” he said.
Dr. Wheatley, however, said that before amending the regulations last year he had consulted with fishers who support CSF’s model after having worked with the company in the past.
Debate about the project also surfaced on Facebook recently.
On Sept. 18, Kathy Wright posted on the BVI Community Board forum asking how Hawks Nest and Little Mountain residents feel “knowing a commercial lobster farm [is] being built in their backyard.”
Some responses defended the project, suggesting that it could bring benefits to the territory’s economy and environment.
“Anything that sustainably and responsibly takes pressure off wild stock has to be a move in the right direction,” posted Kim Huish.
But businessman David Alford Penn replied, “Kim Huish hit the nail on the head. IS it sustainable?”
Mr. Penn, a signatory of the landowners’ petition, went on to express concern about the facility’s potential effects on the Beef Island Channel and on the value of neighbouring properties.
Pop Stevens asked who would benefit from the project.
“If there is an expat investor, locals must own the majority shares,” he posted. “This should be law in the BVI. We should not allow outside investors to reap the rewards for what little we have anymore.”
Thomas Warner wrote that he saw a potential for broader economic benefits.
“Aquaculture is an important part of a long-term plan for fisheries and food security, and the BVI should continue to look into ways of expanding fish farming locally,” Mr. Warner posted.
Meanwhile, work has gotten under way at the East End site. In recent months, the area has been mostly clear-cut, though a fringe of vegetation was left in place along the waterside.
CSF’s June 30 planning approval includes various requirements, most of which relate to the construction phase of the project: the erection of erosion-control devices; the appointment of a third-party inspector during construction; the submission of monthly reports from the inspector to the Planning Authority; and others.
Once the facility is completed, its operations will be regulated by requirements outlined in an aquaculture licence, which has not yet been granted, according to Mr. James, the agriculture and fisheries director.
Mr. James said last week that his department is currently at work drafting the licence. In the past, he added, government officials “did everything like a trial test basis” when they worked with CSF.
“I am now taking my time to fully understand what was done in the past so I can make better now going forward these things, so that we can do things according to the rules and regulations set forth in the laws,” Mr. James said on Nov. 15. “I cannot attest to what was done in the past, but I can surely try my best going forward to rectify some of the things that either weren’t done or weren’t followed up on in the past.”
He added that the aquaculture licence is not needed for construction to get under way at the East End site.
“They are not in the production process for that facility: They are in the construction process,” he explained. “So they don’t really need an aquaculture licence for the construction. They’ve already gotten approval for that.”
CSF, meanwhile, expressed optimism.
“Irma and the global pandemic has meant that the process has taken considerably longer than anyone had hoped, but we are excited to be under way, building the world’s first on-land sustainable lobster farm,” according to a CSF statement Mr. Cadman provided last month.