Shake-up underway in Canada's lucrative surf clam sector

Published on
October 9, 2017

There’s been a shake-up in Canada's lucrative Arctic surf clam business.

In mid-September, Dominic LeBlanc, Canada’s Minister of Fisheries and Ocean (DFO), announced that 25 percent of the Arctic surf clam quota was being re-allocated for an indigenous fishery to start in 2018. The minister gave the various First Nations in Atlantic Canada and Quebec until 2 November to submit expressions of interest to DFO.

Shortly after the minister’s directive was announced, Chief Terry Paul of the Membertou First Nations, announced that Nova Scotia’s Mi’kmaq communities had decided to work together to pursue the clam quota. 

Until the minister’s announcement, Arctic surf clams were exclusively fished under three licenses held by Clearwater Seafoods of Bedford, Nova Scotia. Clearwater has several clam trawlers, which quick-steam and flash-freeze them on-board, then processes on shore. The minister’s announcement is for a fourth license.

In recent years, Clearwater has been landing 38,000 metric tons (MT) of Arctic surf clams, which are highly prized in the Asian market for sushi and sashimi. The Asian market accounts for 98 percent of sales of the Arctic surf clams, which are a virtually unknown species to North American chefs. According to Clearwater head chef Stefan Czapalay, appearing in a corporate video produced in March, the Arctic Surf clam catch is worth CAD 100 million (USD 80 million, EUR 68 million). 

Dannie Hansen, vice president of sustainability for Louisbourg Seafoods, which spent 10 years campaigning to “break the Clearwater monopoly,” was happy with the announcement. 

“Monopolies cannot be allowed, no matter how they’re structured. We, at Louisbourg Seafoods fully support the minister and prime minister in opening this to the indigenous people, but we don’t want Clearwater coming in the back door and having the monopoly by another name.”

Hansen explained the minister’s decision as giving “a majority of the license and ownership must belong to the indigenous people. It can be one or a group; whoever puts in the best proposal and can show the government they have the financial wherewithal to start a CAD 70 to 100 million (USD 55 to 80 million, EUR 47 to 68 million) business. Depending how they do it, it doesn’t have to be that much money. They have to be able to show that they can handle this or can partner with a non-indigenous group, but they [the First Nations] must keep control of the license.”

For its part Clearwater issued a statement that said, “We received notice of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ announcement late Wednesday. We are currently reviewing the details of the announcement in order to determine our best course of action. Clearwater has always been committed to sustainable seafood excellence, science-based fisheries management and due process. We are confident in our ability to build long-term shareholder value and enhance the value of the Arctic surf clam fishery to Canada.”

Reporting from Eastern Canada

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