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Mi’kmaq lead billion-dollar sea change

As Mi’kmaq become part owners of North America’s largest shellfish supplier, they vow to improve Clearwater’s sustainability record

Illustration by Luke Swinson

Oscar Baker III is a Black and Mi’kmaw reporter from Elsipogtog First Nation, currently working as a freelance reporter in Indian Island, New Brunswick.

Last fall, Mi’kmaq harvesters were met with violence as the Sipekne’katik First Nation launched its “moderate livelihood” fishery in St. Marys Bay, 250 kilometres west of Halifax. Lobster pounds were set ablaze, a Mi’kmaq boat was fired upon with flares, and traps tagged as “moderate livelihood” were seized by commercial fishers determined to centre the narrative that the Mi’kmaq were fishing out of season – all while Maine’s lobster-fishing season is open year-round. Out of the tension-filled season, a historic deal was announced: several Mi’kmaq communities would become co-owners of Clearwater, an international powerhouse in the seafood market. The move quickly established the Mi’kmaq as an economic broker in the region.

“This is a transformational moment,” says Chief Terry Paul of Membertou First Nation, who led the $1-billion deal. “It makes me really proud of us Mi’kmaq.”

The coalition he helped forge with seven First Nations invested $250 million in the groundbreaking takeover, with financing from the non-profit First Nations Finance Authority, which is governed by its borrowing members. They now have a 50% ownership stake in North America’s largest shellfish provider, with B.C.-based Premium Brands purchasing the other half.

In Paul’s home community of Unama’ki (Cape Breton Island), they’re rolling out training for people to get involved in offshore fishing and have hired an Indigenous employment officer for Clearwater, which currently employs 200 people in the region, 6% of whom are Indigenous.

One of the key differences between the Clearwater deal and the Mi’kmaq moderate-livelihood fishery is that Clearwater held commercial offshore licences, allowing them to fish lobster year-round, while moderate livelihood contends with treaty rights and typically means inshore lobster fishing (within 50 nautical miles from shore). Offshore fishing requires larger boats, more intense training and safety protocols.

Last summer, Membertou First Nation purchased two of the offshore licences, and Paul promised then that they would continue to gain access to more seafood markets. Buying out Clearwater, which sold more than $600 million in scallops, clams, rock crab, shrimp and lobster on the global market in 2019, has made the coalition the largest holder of shellfish licences and quotas in Canada.

Seafood sales have taken a major hit during the pandemic because of restaurant closures, but Paul believes the deal will have a lasting impact for the Mi’kmaq and other First Nations.

Of the seven First Nations that teamed up to buy out Clearwater, six are from Nova Scotia (Membertou, Sipekne’katik, We’koqma’q, Potlotek, Pictou Landing and Paqtnkek); the seventh, Miawpukek First Nation, is from Newfoundland. Paul says that he would like to see more Indigenous people join the company.

Sophia Sidarous, a Mi’kmaw water protector and director of Earth Guardians Ottawa/Gatineau, agrees the moment is big for Atlantic Indigenous communities. Indigenous people have often been excluded from the Canadian economy, and she’s glad to see some taking part, but Sidarous wants more assurance Clearwater’s fishing will be done in an ecologically sound manner.

“I’m 100% for economic participation, but it needs to be done sustainably,” says Sidarous, who is originally from Metepenagiag Mi’kmaq Nation, 150 kilometres north of Moncton. None of the nine Mi’kmaq communities in New Brunswick participated in the Clearwater deal.

In 2019, Clearwater was convicted by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for improperly storing 3,800 lobster traps along the ocean floor in 2017. In December 2020, Clearwater confirmed that it was dropping its Marine Stewardship Council certification for the Canadian offshore lobster fishing part of its business. The popular certification applies to fisheries that meet sustainability standards.

Chief Paul says the decision not to seek recertification for its offshore lobster fishery “was a business decision based on that fishery representing a small proportion of Clearwater’s overall lobster supply . . . balanced against the costs required to recertify.” He adds that Clearwater’s lobster fishery “remains sustainable, with all the sustainability measures that were in place for 10 years of successful certification remaining in effect.” The MSC seal remains on most other Clearwater products.

Environmental advocates like Sidarous will be watching closely to make sure they deliver on that commitment. She says every industry should be asking how they can operate sustainably while ocean temperatures and sea levels continue to rise and global fish stocks decline: “Economic prosperity needs to be balanced with sustainability.”

Paul agrees. With First Nations steering the ship, he says, the global seafood market will soon be introduced to Netukulimk, the Mi’kmaq belief that any harvesting of the natural bounty must be done respectfully and in harmony with nature.

“Whatever we fish we will fish sustainably. We want to ensure the next seven generations have access, and science conservation is first and foremost in our minds,” says Paul.

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