Indigenous groups, Cape Breton company get slice of lucrative Arctic surf clam fishery

A company from Arichat, N.S., and Indigenous groups in the Atlantic provinces and Quebec have been awarded part of the multimillion-dollar Arctic surf clam fishery. The government calls it a step toward reconciliation, but Clearwater Seafoods is promising legal action after losing its monopoly.

Arichat's Premium Seafoods partners with Five Nations Clam Company; Clearwater Seafoods promises legal action

Clearwater Seafoods had the monopoly on the Arctic surf clam fishery. (Clearwater Seafoods)

A company from Arichat, N.S., and Indigenous groups in the Atlantic provinces and Quebec have been awarded part of the multimillion-dollar Arctic surf clam fishery.

The federal government calls it a step toward reconciliation, but fisheries giant Clearwater Seafoods is promising legal action after losing its monopoly.

Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc said a licence is being awarded to the Five Nations Clam Company, a new group that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said is comprised of First Nations from the five easternmost provinces, which will partner with Premium Seafoods of Arichat to harvest, process and market the catch.

​"The inclusion of participants from each Atlantic province and Quebec will allow the benefits of this lucrative fishery to flow to a broad group of First Nations, and will help create good, middle-class jobs for Indigenous peoples in each Atlantic province and Quebec," the minister said in a statement. "This is a powerful step toward reconciliation."

Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc said the new licence would 'create good, middle-class jobs.' (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The government had already said the monopoly previously held by Clearwater would end this year. In September, LeBlanc said a licence representing 25 per cent of the Arctic surf clam fishery would be introduced within the current allowable catch limits, and be awarded to a First Nations enterprise and its industry partner.

The bidding process was popular: The Department of Fisheries and Oceans said last month it was evaluating nine proposals vying for 8,924 tonnes of surf clams in 2018.

Halifax-based Clearwater pioneered the fishery located mainly off Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador, and generated almost $92 million in revenues in 2016 from the Arctic surf clam.

The company, which sells the clam in Asia for sushi, is calling foul on the decision following its unsuccessful bid, which involved partnering with 13 Mi'kmaq bands in Nova Scotia.

"Clearwater will be pursuing legal options to address this failure in public policy and abuse of power by the Minister," the company said in a statement.

Decision undermines investment, Clearwater says

Clearwater said the decision will mean that middle-class jobs are lost, and some full-time jobs will become temporary seasonal work. The company said it provides year-round jobs to 452 people in 52 Atlantic Canadian communities.

"We have invested hundreds of millions to develop the fishery and the market, including $156 million of investments in the last three years," the statement said.

"In this decision to expropriate investment value and undermine the good faith capital investment decisions of the private sector, the minister has destabilized the investment climate in the Canadian fisheries and the Canadian natural resource sector."

Clearwater paid for the $70-million conversion of a Norwegian supply ship to use for the Arctic surf clam fishery. (Robert Short/CBC)

Company vice-president Christine Penney said in an email that Clearwater supports the government's bid for more Indigenous participation in the fisheries. 

"Our reaction is not a reflection of the named beneficiaries of the minister's decision, rather in the manner the minister has chosen to achieve these objectives.

"We believe the Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia proposal was very strong and provided maximum benefits to Indigenous communities, putting Indigenous communities as full owners of the licence and resource. This proposal also presented an opportunity for the government to mitigate the unique impact this decision has on Clearwater and the communities in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia where we operate."

Premium Seafoods 'honoured'

Premium Seafoods CEO Edgar Samson, whose brother is Liberal MP Darrell Samson, said his company was honoured by the decision and noted that it had recently temporarily closed its shrimp-processing plant in Arichat because of a reduction in quotas.

In an interview with CBC News, Samson said the ship would require a rotating crew totalling 70 people, while the shrimp-processing plant had previously employed about 60. He couldn't say exactly how many people would be needed at the reopened plant.

There will also be months of work needed to train people and build a new production line. Samson said the deal will employ people from Arichat, as well as from the First Nations involved.

"I think it's a very good thing for our community, for the First Nation communities and for our company," he said. "There's no question it's certainly a big asset, and we're looking forward to working on it."

Premium Seafoods of Arichat, N.S., was part of the successful arctic surf clam bid. (Google Streetview)

A spokesperson for Five Nations Clam Company, Chief Aaron Sock of the Elsipogtog band in New Brunswick, commended the federal government for "its commitment to reconciliation" and said in a statement the decision would mean full-time employment for the Mi'kmaq and Innu communities involved.

It's not yet clear what specific Indigenous communities are involved in the Five Nations Clam Company.

Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq chiefs disappointed

Speaking on behalf of Nova Scotia's Mi'kmaq chiefs, Membertou Chief Terry Paul said they were "extremely disappointed" their "monumental" bid with Clearwater lost out.

"Today, we hoped to be taking a step forward in reconciliation with the minister and federal government, and cannot help but feel dissatisfied with the decision made," he said in a statement.

Kelsea MacNeil, director of marketing and media relations for Membertou Corporation, said the bid by Nova Scotia's 13 Mi'kmaq communities may have lost because the government simply wanted somebody other than Clearwater.

"It is disappointing because Indigenous groups and communities across Canada and across Nova Scotia, you know, you would hope would have the opportunity to choose who they want to work for and it shouldn't be up to the government to decide," she said.

She said, however, that Clearwater was launching its legal challenge independently.​

With files from Paul Withers and The Canadian Press