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P.E.I. oyster growers frustrated, facing bankruptcy as Fiona claims drag on

Some P.E.I. oyster growers are still waiting for an answer about their claims for compensation for damage from post-tropical storm Fiona, which hit nearly two years ago. One grower says he and others are hurting financially, and are close to losing their businesses.

'Either I get money from Red Cross or claim bankruptcy and I'm done'

A man holds a wire mesh box full of oysters, on a boat.

An oyster grower in East Bideford, P.E.I., says he and others in the industry are running out of time as they wait for their compensation claims to be settled over gear damage from post-tropical storm Fiona.

The massive storm struck the Island almost 21 months ago, causing great disruption to the province and many of its resource-based industries.

In early April, a provincial government spokesperson told CBC News that of the 89 damage claims that oyster growers had filed since the disaster, only 28 had been approved by the Canadian Red Cross, the non-profit administering the post-Fiona Disaster Financial Assistance Program on the province's behalf.

As of June 4, the spokesperson said 47 claims approval letters had been sent out to aquaculture companies, out of 104 claims in total.

A "very frustrated" Kenneth Arsenault is one of the growers still waiting for a response to his application. His company, KBM Oysters, has a lease on the Lennox Island channel off P.E.I.'s North Shore, and suffered significant damage during the storm.

'Pay the money': P.E.I. oyster harvesters tired of waiting for Fiona payout

41 minutes ago

Duration 2:32

Some Island shellfish harvesters continue to wait for compensation from the province for damages post-tropical storm Fiona caused in 2022. Kenneth Arsenault, who fishes out of East Bideford, says he's on the verge of bankruptcy and thinking of getting out of the business. He tells CBC's Nancy Russell about the real cost of the compensation delays.

"[It] pretty well wiped out over half my oyster operation," Arsenault told CBC News. "It took my floating workstation, and it put it up on the shore… damaged quite extensively."

He said he lost thousands of bags of oysters. He and his employees gathered up what they could along the shoreline, but much of the season's production was lost.

'Money has run out'

Arsenault applied to the Canadian Red Cross for around $160,000 in damages, but said his losses now amount to more like a quarter of a million dollars — and they're still adding up.

That's because he and other growers have had a severe drop in revenue over the last year and a half that they have been waiting for money to get back in the game.

"I haven't made payments on my lease for two years, and I'm at the stage now where the money has ran out," Arsenault said.

"It's either I get money from Red Cross, or claim bankruptcy and I'm done. Somebody else is gonna operate the farm, or it's gonna be going to the wayside."

Arsenault said he's fortunate to be running another business that is footing his month-to-month bills. He bought this lease to help pay for his retirement, but said that's not going to happen now.

Arsenault has three employees now, but intends to lay them off in three weeks, if his claim isn't settled.

"We should have been paid at the latest the summer of '23. There's no reason for it," he said.

"I'm weeks away from not being able to make payroll. And I know there's other farmers in the same boat. They're weeks away from being shut down and not making payments."

The money is there from the Disaster Relief Fund. So why aren't we paid? It's almost two years now. It's ridiculous.

— Kenneth Arsenault, oyster grower

Arsenault said he doesn't understand why it has taken so long to administer a disaster relief fund, which was intended to help those with urgent needs.

"Too much finger-pointing between the Red Cross and both levels of government there," he speculated.

"The money is there from the Disaster Relief Fund. So why aren't we paid? It's almost two years now. It's ridiculous."

In late May, Arsenault attended a meeting with other oyster growers, and they drafted a letter to the premier, asking for help.

He said the clock is ticking, since oyster crews can't afford to lose another growing season.

"It takes three to four years to grow an oyster from spat to market, pretty close to four years," Arsenault said. "So when Fiona hit, I lost most of what I was going to sell that year, and it put me behind two years."

Without financial resources to rebuild, he said: "This is 2024. I'm not going to recoup this year. I'm probably not going to recoup next year."

Arsenault said if growers had received compensation last season, they would have been able to start rebuilding the stocks and "this year, I would had a lot more sellable oysters."

That's not going to happen.

"I haven't paid myself since the hurricane hit," he pointed out. "So I've been working for two years for nothing and trying to rebuild this oyster lease."

Aspokesperson from the Red Cross directed questions about the claim processing times to the provincial government.

In a statement to CBC News, a provincial spokesperson said: "The team continues to work diligently on all remaining claims, which are mostly comprised of more complex files requiring additional information."

Support from alliance

The P.E.I. Aquaculture Alliance sent a survey to its membership asking how many still haven't had their claims settled, and heard back from 49 members.

It has offered support to any growers who need help submitting documents or other information the Red Cross is requesting.

One of the things we've really been asking for is some much, much clearer communication.

— Peter Warris, P.E.I. Aquaculture Alliance

Executive director Peter Warris said the alliance has also been urging the Red Cross and the provincial government to speed up the process and get all of the claims settled.

"One of the things we've really been asking for is some much, much clearer communication on a one-to-one basis with the clients who have claims in, so that they're aware of where their claim is, what the sticking points are, if there are any, so that those can be resolved and a timeline [set], to give them an idea as to how long it's going to be until they can expect to get the claims finished," Warris said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nancy Russell is a reporter at CBC Prince Edward Island. She has also worked as a reporter and producer with CBC in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, and Toronto. She can be reached at Nancy.Russell@cbc.ca

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