DFO reverses award of Arctic surf clam quota to N.B. First Nation, N.S. partner

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has reversed its controversial decision to award 25 per cent of the lucrative Arctic surf clam quota to a company led by a New Brunswick First Nation and its industry partner.

The department said it will launch a new bidding process next year

The Arctic surf clam is one of the main products produced at the Grand Bank plant. (Clearwater Seafoods)

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has reversed a controversial decision to award 25 per cent of the lucrative Arctic surf clam quota to a company led by a New Brunswick First Nation and its industry partner.

In February, then fisheries minister Dominic LeBlanc announced the department was handing a licence to Five Nations Clam Company, led by Elsipogtog First Nation and Premium Seafoods of Arichat, N.S.

The move was touted by the Trudeau government as an act of Indigenous reconciliation. But it also faced criticism from rival First Nations who bid on the quota — including one that launched a court challenge — and anger from Clearwater, the Nova Scotia seafood company that had held a monopoly on the fishery.

On Friday, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans announced in a news release it will no longer issue the licence to Five Nations. The news release gave no reasons for the decision.

The department said it will launch a new bidding process next year and submissions will be evaluated by an "independent third party" that will make recommendations to DFO. It said it expects that whomever is chosen to receive the licence will begin fishing in 2020.

The decision to cancel the licence comes just weeks after the latest cabinet shuffle when Jonathan Wilkinson was appointed to be the new federal fisheries minister. Wilkinson told The Telegram (St. John's) at the time he had no plan to revisit the issue and intended to move forward. 

Federal Conservative fisheries critic Todd Doherty called the decision a good move.

"We said all along the process was flawed," he said. "Obviously, there's been damage to the industry these last 10 months. But overall this is good news and [we] look forward to seeing how they move forward, the next process." 

In an email, DFO said: "The remaining 25 per cent of the 2018 [total allowable catch] may be made available following discussions with the current licence holder. This would allow for the economic benefits to remain in coastal communities while we work to broaden access to this fishery." CBC has requested clarification. 

The Arctic surf clam is a bright red tongue-shaped seafood that is exported to Asia for sushi. The new First Nations quota — some 9,600 tonnes a year — was a prize worth tens of millions of dollars.

The Anne Risley has a 450-tonne hold for Arctic surf clam. It was built by Clearwater before it was told that part of its quota was being handed over to a company with Indigenous partnerships. (Robert Short/CBC)

The decision to award it to Five Nations was challenged in Federal Court by a rival, Miawpukek First Nation based in Conne River, N.L.

The case revealed the confidential details of the more than half-dozen proposals the federal government received and how it evaluated each.

The records filed in court showed Five Nations was only 25 per cent Indigenous owned with the remainder in the hands of Premium Seafoods.

The band dropped its legal challenge in June.

Part of the controversy around the decision led to an investigation by federal ethics commissioner Mario Dion into LeBlanc's decision.

Federal Tories said a relative of LeBlanc's wife had a financial stake in the winning bid. They also alleged the group given the lucrative licence had Liberal links.

The Conservatives claimed that these links may have influenced LeBlanc's decision — a suggestion he called "ludicrous."

LeBlanc is now Minister of Intergovernmental and Northern Affairs and Internal Trade.

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