The heart of Canada’s Arctic surf clam fishery is in Grand Bank, Newfoundland. “All we do is surf clams,” the mayor said. It’s the Arctic surf clam’s foot that makes it valuable — a tapering, pointed piece of flesh shaped like a shark fin that turns bright red when cooked.
Until 30 years ago, there was no market anywhere for the large clams. Today, they’re a popular sushi ingredient in Japan, China and South Korea, and the basis of a thriving Newfoundland fishery.
But Newfoundland’s surf clams are now at the centre of the federal government’s efforts to take meaningful action on reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and thus at the heart of an escalating Atlantic drama.
A recent federal decision to end a longstanding monopoly on the fishery, held by a Halifax-based company that says it’s invested hundreds of millions to develop the market, and to award part of the quota to an Indigenous partnership has spiralled into controversy. With local communities, a provincial government and Indigenous groups in two provinces claiming the whole process was unfair, it’s a case study in how much harder it is for the federal government to achieve reconciliation than to promise it.
The heart of the Arctic surf clam fishery is in Grand Bank, Nfld., a community of 2,300 people four hours’ drive from St. John’s. That’s where Clearwater, which held a monopoly on the surf clam industry for years, has built its processing plant and operates three harvesting vessels. The company says it employs 450 people year-round from 52 communities in Atlantic Canada, with many of the jobs centred in Grand Bank. In 2016, the company’s revenue from Arctic surf clam sales was nearly $92 million.
Clearwater’s monopoly consisted of three federal licences that allowed the company to harvest up to 38,756 tonnes last year. But last September, federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc announced he was issuing a fourth licence, for one quarter of the existing harvest, to a new participant that would have to be an Indigenous group in one of the four Atlantic provinces or Quebec. It was a move both to break the monopoly and to help Indigenous communities gain a foothold in a lucrative market.
Grand Bank Mayor Rex Matthews spoke out right away, angry about possible job losses. “The minister just pulled the rug right out from under us,” he told the Post on Monday. “That’s the only species we have …. All we do is surf clams.”
In February, LeBlanc announced he was awarding the new licence to the Five Nations Clam Company, a new entity comprised of First Nations from all five provinces, which would partner with Nova Scotia-based Premium Seafoods. “This is a powerful step toward reconciliation,” he said at the time.
Clearwater reacted quickly with a threat of legal action. Christine Penney, vice-president of sustainability and public affairs, told the Post that jobs could be lost or reduced to seasonal work.
But the story quickly became more complicated. Last week, Newfoundland Premier Dwight Ball told CBC News that, as far as he knows, no Indigenous group in Newfoundland has partnered with the Five Nations Clam Company, and called for the licence to be withdrawn. Federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc And on Friday, a group representing 13 Mi’kmaq communities across Nova Scotia chimed in, claiming no Nova Scotian First Nations have signed on either. “
We have serious questions about the integrity and fairness of the process,” said Chief Terrance Paul, co-chair of the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs, in a statement. The 13 Mi’kmaq communities had submitted their own bid for the fourth licence last fall, in partnership with Clearwater. They’re now […]
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