Bidders hungry for part of Arctic surf clam fishery after decades-long monopoly

The competition for newly available Arctic surf clam quota off Cape Breton has three times more applicants than previously reported, which is a sign of the interest in a fishery that has been controlled by a single company for decades.

Trudeau government ended Clearwater Seafoods' monopoly last fall

The quota for Arctic surf clam will be worth many millions of dollars a year to the winner. (Clearwater Seafoods)

The competition for newly available Arctic surf clam quota off Cape Breton has three times more applicants than previously reported, which is a sign of the interest in a fishery that has been controlled by a single company for decades.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans says it is evaluating nine proposals vying for 8,924 tonnes of surf clams in 2018.

The quota will be worth many millions of dollars a year to the winner.

Until this year, the surf clam fishery was held entirely by Clearwater Seafoods, which sells the bright red meat in Asia for sushi.

The Anne Risley has a 450-tonne hold for Arctic surf clam. (Robert Short/CBC)

The Halifax-based company pioneered the fishery. In 2016, it landed 38,756 tonnes caught mostly on Banquereau Bank off Cape Breton.

Surf clams accounted for the vast majority of the $91 million in revenues generated from clams.

Clearwater monopoly busted

Last fall, the Trudeau government ended the monopoly.

It announced that it will take 25 per cent of the quota in 2018 and award it to a First Nations enterprise in Atlantic Canada or Quebec and its industry partner.

Dominic LeBlanc is the federal minister of Fisheries and Oceans. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

The quota allocation is part of Ottawa's effort at reconciliation with Indigenous Canadians.

Federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc said the winner will be announced in a matter of weeks.

"We've received a number of interesting proposals and the department is finalizing the evaluation of these," he said.

Mystery bidders 

Only three of the applicants have publicly disclosed their interest in obtaining the quota, including Nova Scotia's 13 Mi'kmaq bands who partnered with Clearwater for their bid.

Other bands in the region have publicly partnered with either New Brunswick's Cooke Seafood or Ocean Choice of St. John's.

Clearwater Seafoods clam harvesting vessel, the Belle Carnell. (Azzo Rezori/CBC)

DFO said six other proposals have also been submitted and their identities remain a mystery.

Dannie Hansen of Louisbourg Seafoods, which opted not to enter a bid, said he's surprised by the large number of applicants given the high cost of getting into the fishery.

"This is not a half-million dollar investment. You got to have $30 million here. I thought it was only the three big guys," said Hansen.

Dannie Hansen of Louisburg Seafoods is surprised by the high number of people submitting bids to fish Arctic surf clam. (CBC)

Which companies would have the financial muscle and fishing moxie to enter the competition is a matter of speculation, with offshore shrimp companies one obvious source of potential partners.

The fleet of big factory freezer trawlers have seen a huge cut in their quota off Newfoundland.

CBC News contacted offshore shrimp harvesters in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland, but did not get a response from any of the companies.

'An invaluable quota'

Hansen said the intense interest is a sign of the quota's value.

"There is a vast number of companies that think they have the capital wherewithal to pull this off, which would indeed, help any community that got it. The monopolies do not work that way for communities. It's an invaluable quota," he said.

About the Author

Paul Withers

Reporter

Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.