Thirteen Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq bands have announced they are partnering with Clearwater Seafoods to seek a licence in the lucrative Arctic surf clam fishery, following a recent call by Ottawa for new entrants in a sector currently fished by Clearwater alone.

The announcement of the "operational partnership" was made Thursday by Chief Terrance Paul, co-chair of the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Chiefs.

The Mi'kmaq communities submitted the proposal after federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc announced in September that his department was looking to give 25 per cent of the quota held by Halifax-based Clearwater Seafoods to a new entrant.

The new licence, which is due to be issued next year, must go to a holder who is majority Canadian-owned and must be an Indigenous entity based in Atlantic Canada or Quebec.

'Historic opportunity for our people'

Paul said the chance to participate in the fishery represents a "historic opportunity for our people" and the chiefs hope it will be the start of new jobs and training.

"The long-term effects of this licence would change significantly the economic landscape of all our 13 communities," said Paul. "The effects would be the employment that we are able to get with our operating partner, the training opportunities and the access to skill development."

li-clearwater620-cp973793

Two of Clearwater Seafoods' factory freezer scallop trawlers are shown in Shelburne, N.S., in March 2006. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

Paul said the total value of the licence would exceed $315 million for Mi'kmaq communities over a 50-year period.

He said the Mi'kmaq are partnering with Clearwater Seafoods on the application, but he adds Clearwater will only act as an operating partner while the licence will be solely Mi'kmaq owned.

"Our 13 communities collectively have decision-making power and ownership of the licence, therefore we would be a second licence holder here."

Expensive startup costs

Paul said the idea of the Clearwater partnership is to eventually build enough capacity to be able to spend the millions of dollars it would take to fish with "our own boat and our own crew." Vessels in the industry can cost as much as $50 million or more.

The proposal would initially see 25 crew positions created on Clearwater vessels with pay levels of around $76,000 a year, Paul said. He said Mi'kmaq crew would be trained to operate the vessels.

Paul said the Mi'kmaq talked to a number of companies about the licence opportunity, but it simply made the most business sense to go with Clearwater, which is the established operator in an expensive fishery.

"The only one that made sense to us really, and we start making money from day one."

Dannie Hansen, the vice-president of Clearwater rival Louisbourg Seafoods, has been pushing for the fishery to be opened up for about 10 years.

Backdoor monopoly

Hansen said he fully supports the Mi'kmaq and believes they made a "solid management decision" in order to "make revenue the quickest."

"They are to be congratulated... but I am appalled that we fought so hard and here's the monopoly coming in the back door," he said.

Hansen said his company had been lobbying for about 8,000 tonnes of the quota, but is now looking at other species that will "help us fill in that gap."

In an emailed statement, Christine Penney, vice-president of sustainability and public affairs for Clearwater, said the company was "honoured" to be chosen by the Mi'kmaq as an operational partner.

"This proposal will protect existing jobs in the clam operation and grow the value of the industry for all," said Penney.

38,000 tonnes of quota

The fishing grounds for Arctic surf clams are mainly located off Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador, and the current quota is about 38,000 tonnes.

The clams, annually worth tens of millions of dollars, are caught offshore aboard factory freezer trawlers and exported to Asia.

When blanched their purple colour turns red and is attractive to the sushi and sushimi market.

Three Newfoundland and Labrador Indigenous groups also plan to submit a bid.

With files from CBC News