Decision to cancel lucrative surf clam contract remains shrouded in mystery

The reasoning behind the government's decision to cancel its surf clam contract with Five Nations Clam Company remains hidden inside a tightly closed shell.

Surf clam fishing licence was issued to Five Nations Clam Company in February and squelched in July

New Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson says confidentiality prevents him from revealing why the government cancelled a contract awarded to Five Nations Clam Company just a few months ago. (CBC)

The reasoning behind the federal government's decision to cancel its surf clam contract with Five Nations Clam Company remains hidden inside a tightly closed shell. 

On Tuesday, Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson would only say that the choice was made after "discussions" with the company. 

"For reasons of commercial confidentiality, I can't go into the specifics," he told reporters.

In February, the government awarded 25 per cent of the annual surf clam quota to Five Nations — a contract worth tens of millions of dollars. 

But last week, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans announced it had cancelled the licence in July.

"As you get into these kinds of arrangements, obviously, both sides learn a lot. We want to make sure that this is successful on a go-forward basis," said Wilkinson.

The Arctic surf clam is a bright red tongue-shaped seafood that is exported to Asia for sushi. 

Clearwater will 'likely' take 25% back

Clearwater Seafoods, a Nova Scotia-based company that had held a surf clam monopoly before February, will likely fish the 25 per cent meant to go to Five Nations, said Wilkinson. 

"There are some issues that we need to discuss with them and we're going to be working through that over the next few weeks," he added.

Arctic surf clams, called hokkigai in Japanese, are most commonly used in sushi. (Robert Short/CBC)

That's good news for Clearwater plant workers in Grand Bank, N.L., says the Liberal MP for Bonavista-Burin-Trinity, Churence Rogers.

"I've already had discussions with Clearwater some time ago about this eventuality, and they're prepared to go fish and process the 25 per cent of the clams that would otherwise be left in the water," he said.

"So for economic reasons, for the company, for the peninsula, for the people of Grand Bank, for the fishermen, it makes a whole lot of sense that they go get it."

Liberal MP Churence Rogers says the reversal will bring stability to Grand Bank. (CBC)

The return of the 25 per cent to Clearwater is temporary, said Wilkinson, with DFO planning to launch a new process to award a new surf clam licence next year. 

"The government remains committed to Indigenous reconciliation but it is committed to doing it in a way that is successful," he said. 

Five Nations licence controversial from the start 

The process that saw Five Nations Clam Company awarded with the lucrative contract has been controversial from the start. 

When the company was awarded its contract, beating out six other proposals, it didn't have its partners listed. Months later, records filed in court showed that Five Nations was only 25 per cent Indigenous-owned. 

The federal ethics commissioner was also brought into the mix in May, launching an investigation into ties between then-Fisheries minister Dominic LeBlanc's wife's family and the Five Nations Clam Company.

On Tuesday, Wilkinson denied that conflicts of interest had anything to do with the decision to kill the contract. 

For Grand Bank Mayor Rex Matthews, it's been a trial to watch the process play out. 

"That process was flawed from Day 1. It was wrong from Day 1," he said. "I'm thinking that the reason for it is the company they gave the licence to, Five Nations Clam Company, they didn't have the wherewithal to put the licence into action. If they did, there would have been no reversal."

Grand Bank Mayor Rex Matthews says there is no reason to celebrate the quota decision reversal. (CBC)

Matthews says he doesn't see the potential temporary return of a monopoly for Clearwater as any kind of victory. 

"It's not a great deal when you've got your life on hold for another 18 to 24 months. We haven't won anything.… This town wouldn't be participating in any process that was going to take fish from any other community. It just wouldn't happen."

He says he's hoping First Nations communities will also protest the fishery by not participating in the next licensing process. 

"They should not partake in this process that put so much grief and pain on their fellow Canadians, and from another rural community, another fishing community," he said.

"The only way it's going to stop is if the First Nations, the Indigenous people, the leadership of those nations steps up and says, 'This process is not right.'"

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