Shell fish rebounding under cultivation

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Tom Harper of Unique Sea Farms has worked in processing and distributing clams and oysters for 12 years in coastal British Columbia.

"We deal with the whole industry of the BC coast. It is quite extensive and we are continually developing, Harper said. "The economic development officers and fisheries officers of the First Nations have a lot going on that ties back to processing."

Unique Sea Farms' facility contains a shell fish hatchery. The seed is for a growing shell fish industry on the Inside Passage and equal developments on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

"It is a $10 million facility that is also involved in the commercial fishery. We catch rock cod and sole for the Asian market, which is prevalent in Canada as well, including Toronto, Vancouver, and in American cities."

The investment group that built the facility put it south of Nanaimo.

"It is the largest land-based facility of its kind," Harper said. "We have 300 First Nations people working for Unique Sea Foods. With the farm end, the bands are seeding beaches and investing in infrastructure.

"We operate direct joint ventures with First Nations near Nanaimo and at Sechelt and Powell River. We act like cooperative ventures, but maintaining independence is the main thing."

Harper said infrastructure is expensive and the operation is predicated on growth in the industry. He said the joint ventures are working well although he noticed that elections tend to change things in First Nations communities. "We walk in a different world. Politics change the dynamics in the communities. Generally they want what is best for the band."

Unique Sea Foods contributes 25 percent of the clams sold from the British Columbia market. "We are not large in oysters yet. We plan to change that soon," Harper said, adding that the best grounds in the world exist in the False Narrows and Gabriola Bar on Nanaimo's doorstep.

Warren Johnny works at the Chemainus First Nation Fishery where the clam harvest has created some opportunities. "Basically the commercial harvest of clams is made under federal regulations for marginally contaminated shell fish beds. We sell the product to a depuration plant under a permit issued by the province."

Clam digging underwent a regulatory metamorphosis a few years ago, Johnny said. "The inititive to regulate clam digging by area occurred when beds became overharvested. The shell fish industry saw the creation of sectional areas" after 1989, he explained. "The reduction went from seven days a week working any time of year to three or four days a year.

"As concerned members of the Chemainus community we looked for ways to increase clam harvests," Johnny said. "Once we started, we went up to where we now employ 35 to 45 clam diggers during the year."

The harvest is carefully assessed to make it sustainable. "During the summer we do the stock assessments. In winter we negotiate the number of pounds per harvest."

At the Chemainus First Nation Fishery, Jerry Harris said, "We are operating the depuration process in a co-management scheme that uses the resources of our foreshore lands and uplands. The water quality is very good for salmon, oyster and clams.

"Right now we are working on business plans for 2001. We are in joint venture with Unique Sea Foods.

Oyster pickers and clam diggers used to be the lowest on the totem pole, he said. Now they sit on top.

"Management skills are tied to self government skills," Harris said. "We are applying the Supreme Court decision about the east coast to our immediate concerns for our own investments."

The traditional guardians have to deal with modern regimentation of resources, plying investment schemes in territories that have traditional overlapping concerns. Harris said, "We have other harvests in gooey ducks, herring roe, kelp, and other things to branch off. With 75 percent unemployment in our communities, the process of creating jobs must continue to improve."