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Labrador Southern Inuit gain partnership in surf clam quota

13 Mi’kmaq communities are collectively pursuing a share of the Arctic surf clam fishery in Nova Scotia.
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Labrador’s southern Inuit are poised to benefit from newly allocated Arctic surf clam quota.

Last year, Dominic Leblanc, federal fisheries minister, decided to break Clearwater Seafood’s monopoly on the surf clam fishery and award 25 per cent, or 8,294 tonnes, of the quota to a First Nations entity as part of the Liberal government’s reconciliation efforts. NunatuKavut, through its company NDC Fisheries, entered a bid, but in the end the quota was awarded to Elsipogtog First Nation out of New Brunswick.

“We were very disappointed at the time that the minister chose a different group,” said Todd Russell, NunatuKavut president.

The Elsipogtog bid, however, included a structure that involved participation of indigenous groups from each of the four Atlantic provinces, as well as, Quebec. Following some discussion and negotiation, Russell explained, Elsipogog invited NDC to join the Five Nations Clam Company along with Nutashkuan F.N. (Quebec), Potlotek F.N. (Nova Scotia) and Abegweit F.N. (Prince Edward Island). Each group has a 20 per cent share of the agreement.

“We’re very excited and very proud to be part of it,” Russell said. “It feels right that we’re involved. Our people have been dependent on the marine environment ever since we’ve been here. While this is a new fishery for us, our individual and collective well-being has always been attached to the marine environment.”

He anticipates approximately 14 to 15 good-paying jobs for NunatuKavut individuals as well as revenues that will benefit the entire community.

“We see a real possibility of some very good returns,” he said.

Although Russell is reluctant to talk potential dollars, Clearwater registered sales of nearly $90 million in 2016 meaning the NunataKavut share of the gross could be as much as four to five million dollars. A lot of details still need to be worked out, however and it remains to be seen how profitable the new operation might be.

Currently the 38,000 tonnes of clam quota is harvested primarily offshore of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador by factory freezer trawlers, processed at Clearwater’s plant in Grand Banks, on the island of Newfoundland and sold mainly in the Asian market. Five Nations has partnered with Premium Seafoods in New Brunswick to process its catch.

The reallocation has led to outrage on the Burin Peninsula where many people have been dependent on the Arctic surf clam catch for nearly 30 years. Clearwater attempted to preserve its monopoly by partnering with 13 Mi’kmaq bands in Nova Scotia and vowed to sue the federal government after its proposal was rejected.

“We believe that the Mi’kmaq proposal was very strong and provided maximum benefits to indigenous communities,” Clearwater vice-president Christine Penney told the Financial Post.

Minister Leblanc disagreed.

“The inclusion of participants from each Atlantic province and Quebec will allow the benefits of this lucrative fishery to flow to a broad group of First Nations and will help create good, middle-class jobs for indigenous peoples in each Atlantic province and Quebec.”

Rex Matthews, the mayor of Grand Banks was critical of the minister saying Leblanc “doesn’t seem to care about middle-class jobs in Grand Banks as long as there are middle class jobs for indigenous people.”

Leblanc has also taken heat for a perceived connection between Premium Seafoods and the federal Liberal Party. Edgar Samson, president of Premium, is brother to Liberal MP Darrell Samson. Shortly after the surf clam announcement was made, The Halifax-Chronicle Herald reported Edgar Samson had donated nearly $5,500 to the Liberal Party since 2006. He denied there was any impropriety.

Russell acknowledged the controversy, but is leaving that between the other parties and focusing on the positive impacts for the southern Labrador Inuit. In addition to jobs and revenue, he also sees other, more intangible benefits such as learning a new fishery, diversification, and building capacity in other areas such as administration and marketing.

“We see a lot of good that can come out of this when you put it altogether,” he said. “And it does advance reconciliation.”

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