Published On: Friday, 05 April 2019

First Nations Combine Science and Tradition for Sustainable Fishery

First Nations Combine Science and Tradition for Sustainable Fishery
A blend of tradition and science plus a decade of research underlies the success of Coastal Shellfish.

By Valorie Lennox

PRINCE RUPERT - Coastal Shellfish is nourished by millennia of knowledge. The company is 87% First Nations owned, which is reflected in the company mandate to develop and grow a sustainable industry that involves First Nations in harvesting, but not depleting, the natural resources of the Great Bear Rainforest region.

Under the brand name Great Bear Scallops, the company has developed a process to cultivate world-class scallops in the chilly waters near Prince Rupert. The success of this unique aquaculture industry is measured not by profit but by success in developing a viable and sustainable industry.

Established in 2011, this innovative venture has achieved the following:

  • Often elusive biological proofs of concept, in order to establish a viable hatchery for scallops;
  • Reliable and successful production of seed and adult scallops;
  • Four years of highly rated sales of small batches of farmed scallops; and
  • Ocean Wise sustainability certification.

Key to the company’s success is merging traditional First Nations knowledge with 21st century science. The initiative began with traditional knowledge of the water, supplemented by research trials starting in 2003 to identify the best species for sustainable aquaculture. Scallops – a delectable, popular, and high-value shellfish – were identified as most suitable for the ecosystem.

The Metalakatla First Nations’ Development Corporation was the majority shareholder in creating Coastal Shellfish. Hereditary Chief Harold Leighton says the project goal is to restore an ocean-based economy to the region, which offers ongoing sustainability, good jobs, and an exceptional, clean food product to consumers.

Unlike many other fisheries, Coastal Shellfish is built on sustainability and not just harvesting. This is a dramatic shift in thinking but a shift that is essential for the industry to thrive over generations. As a model, the company can look back to the generations of Coast Tsimshian people, who lived and harvested in this area for millennia.

Chief Leighton notes their legacy is incorporated into Coastal Shellfish. “Something more than an occasional homage must be paid to the collective knowledge and experiences of those who came before us…. It may be impossible to reconcile or restore anything without a significant and respectful knowledge of the past.”

With the future residents of the region included as acknowledged – if not yet present – shareholders of the company, Coastal Shellfish could not take shortcuts when developing its seeding and harvesting process. Nothing could harm the environment: everything had to be sustainable.

Doing it right was time-consuming, expensive, and difficult but the company had no other option. “I am responsible to maintain a continuum of care and concern for a land and a people,” Chief Leighton observed. “Decisions I make today must honor the past and provide for the future.”

The mandate to honour the past and provide for the future extends beyond the environment. The structure of Coastal Shellfish includes plans to train workers for careers in aquaculture. Potential jobs will exist for entry-level young people to senior management in hatchery science, site management, food processing, marketing, sales, and general management.

The industry is able to offer year-round employment, unlike the short-term, hit and miss employment of the extraction-only fisheries industry. Traditional fisheries face dwindling fish stocks and a bleak, limited future. By contrast, Coastal Shellfish presents a zero-food-input, non-extractive source of seafood that is endlessly sustainable.

Planning for the future, the company has secured additional marine areas within Coast Tsimshian territory for grow-out operations and additional sites. The company plans to restore the North Coast as a seafood-based economy drawing on the wealth of the ocean without depleting it.

Developing and proving the science has been a long process but the rewards will be profitability, wealth creation, sustainability, economic development, and a new, environmentally friendly food export for the province. It is a multi-faceted win for First Nations, for the company, and for the future.

“There is a luxury in thinking about the future,” Chief Leighton says. “There is a burden being responsible for it. Creating it must be an obsession.”

After more than a decade of effort, the obsession is being rewarded.