A federal decision to end a surf clam monopoly left local communities, a provincial government and Indigenous groups in two provinces saying the process was unfair
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.
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. “
Fisheries and Oceans Canada did not provide any names of Indigenous groups that are part of the Five Nations partnership, referring the Post to Chief Aaron Sock, the spokesperson for the new company and chief of the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick. The Post was unable to reach Sock.
“We thought the idea was a good idea … and a strong step towards reconciliation,” said Shayne McDonald, legal counsel for Miawpupek First Nation in Newfoundland, which submitted a bid for the licence with two other Indigenous groups in that province. Now, he’s not so sure. He believes the Five Nations Clam Company only began looking for Indigenous partners after it won the licence, which he sees as unfair. “We’re strongly contemplating legal action,” he said.
Newfoundland Fisheries Minister Gerry Byrne said he “cannot find the logic” in the federal government’s handling of the decision. “It has been anything but reconciliation,” he said. “It has pitted province against province, community versus community and First Nation against First Nation.”
Byrne said a better process already exists for ensuring that Indigenous communities have access to lucrative fisheries. He pointed to a federal program, created in 1994, that allows Ottawa to buy licences from holders who are willing to relinquish their quota and re-issue them to Indigenous groups.
“What is different about the surf clam decision is that this is the first time that I’m aware of that an existing (licence) holder had quota removed from it a) involuntarily and b) without compensation,” he said.
It has pitted province against province, community versus community and First Nation against First Nation
However, it’s not the first time the government has tried to break Clearwater’s monopoly. In 2015, the Harper government announced it would increase the total allowable catch from 38,756 tonnes to 52,655 tonnes, and allow new companies to enter the fishery. Clearwater opposed the increase, and continues to maintain that there is “no scientific evidence” that an increase would be sustainable.
In 2016, the Liberal government reversed the change pending further scientific review. This latest move is an attempt to break the monopoly without increasing the catch.
In September, LeBlanc told the Post he’s optimistic that further research will provide a basis for increasing the clam harvest. “That would certainly be my hope but I don’t want to wait,” he said; otherwise, “you continue in perpetuity the status quo, which was a very long-term monopoly.”
Instead, the government decided to try and open a lucrative fishery and further reconciliation, all at once. But so far, it seems to have left almost nobody happy.
“It has resulted in Indigenous groups in Atlantic Canada being pitted against each other, developing ill feelings,” McDonald said. “It does nothing for reconciliation.”