Cross Country Checkup

With scallops, this B.C. First Nation is developing a sustainable economy

Coastal Shellfish in Prince Rupert, B.C., is raising sustainable scallops. The company grew out of Coastal First Nations Corporation, an alliance of several First Nations communities, including Gitga'at First Nation.

The company grew out of Coastal First Nations Corporation

Michelle Franze stand next to vats where scallop larvae develop. (Ayesha Barmania/CBC)

Michelle Franze and Danielle Simard splash their way through a corridor between enormous vats of swirling murky water. "These larvae are about 16 days old," Franze said. And we can't even see them.

The Checkup team visited Coastal Shellfish's hatchery and algae farm in Prince Rupert, B.C. In two years, the tiny larvae will be scallops ready for sale to wholesalers and to the restaurant industry across North America.

The vats support the scallop larvae until they grow to be a few millimetres long. Then the young scallops are transferred to ocean nets where they'll grow to maturity.

Coastal Shellfish's scallop hatchery and farm operation employs 35 people year-round. They sell millions of scallops under the brand Great Bear Scallops. The operation is majority owned by local First Nations.

It's a new and exciting shift in direction that has been two decades in the making.

Fully-grown brood stock scallops are used for mating.

The Great Bear Initiative

Arthur Sterritt remembers the late 1990s as a period of discontent for First Nations in Northern B.C. They had witnessed decades of resource extraction with very little engagement and no focus on sustainability. He was working for the Gitga'at Nation at the time.

"We had done studies on the forest in the region and determined that due to harvesting — if it continued at the rate at which it was going, that we wouldn't have a tree left in 20 years," Sterritt said.

"We knew at that time that if we wanted an economy based on the forest we had to do something about the status quo."

The Gitga'at First Nation tried addressing these issues in the treaty-making process, and again in the land use planning with the province but to no avail. This fruitless participation in government negotiations was disheartening and frustrating — but it was also an experience shared by the other First Nations surrounding the Gitga'at.

"We determined that we basically had to write our rights ourselves," said Sterritt. "The treaty process wasn't doing that. The land use plan was not doing that. We needed to come together and do that on our own."

Workers clean lantern nets where scallops develop. They latch onto ropes in the nets to grow. (Ayesha Barmania/CBC)

"There have been so many court cases over the years that have determined that First Nations have the rights and title to what goes on in the area and any exercises have to be done with First Nations leadership," he said.

"So for the first time, First Nations all the way up to the Alaska border decided they would come up with a plan for what happened in the area."

They formed an alliance called The Great Bear Initiative, and today it's known as the Coastal First Nations corporation. In addition to First Nations it also included truck drivers, logging companies, environmentalists and small businesses.

With local partners on board, Coastal First Nations was — and continues to be — able to negotiate with significantly more power than any individual First Nation.

They halted much of the extractive industry that was taking place on the land and in the ocean, and in turn created new ventures including ecotourism, sustainable forestry, scallop aquaculture and more.

Sterritt adds they "created a lot more protections for the region than environmental groups had ever anticipated."

Coastal Shellfish tests different types of algae in this laboratory. (Ayesha Barmania/CBC)

'Economies of the future'

Securing investment in compatible local businesses was crucial.

"We decided that it can't be just a plan, we also need the capacity to implement the plan. We determined we needed to raise a lot of capital to jumpstart the economy in the region — an economy [Indigenous people] had been marginalized [in]."

They negotiated a carbon offset agreement that has funded several economic enterprises. They negotiated forestry licenses and acquired licenses for oyster, mussel and scallop aquaculture testing sites.

Coastal First Nations are now partners with local, provincial, federal and international enterprises in the region.

The staging area where scallops live before they're sent back into the ocean. (Ayesha Barmania/CBC)

Michael Uehara is the CEO and President of Coastal Shellfish. His company is a strong example of the persistent advocacy and success in securing First Nations ownership in resources.

Uehara is not Indigenous. He was hired for his expertise by the Metlaktla First Nation Development Corporation who own the company. Profits from the shellfish operation flow back to the local community.

"The establishment of Coastal First Nations and the ability to shepherd land and marine management towards sustainability was truly incredible," he said. "[These are] the economies of the future."

For those working at Coastal Shellfish, it means good work and steady job prospects. For consumers, it means ethically-sourced scallops.

And for the community, it means a sustainable road ahead for the foreseeable future.

Written by Ayesha Barmania