Norwegian fisherman Jacob Arnet was one of the first homesteaders to settle in Tofino in 1894. A century later, local entrepreneur Roland “Roly” Arnet is keeping his grandfather's pioneer spirit alive by seeding a new economy in Clayoquot Sound.

Arnet is part of B.C.'s booming shellfish aquaculture sector. With a $50,000 loan from Ecotrust Canada Capital, his company, Lagoon Island Mariculture Ltd., doubled its oyster production.

“It was more than a loan,” says Arnet. “I wanted to establish a working relationship with Ecotrust Canada because of their philosophy of sustainability. One of my goals is to promote shellfish aquaculture in Clayoquot Sound and create a new economic base for the region.”

Shellfish aquaculture is diversifying the local economy, providing much needed jobs and revenue in a region hurt by downturns in traditional resource industries, such as forestry and fishing, in the late 1990s.

Arnet's family, in fact, has seen a century of resource booms and busts in Clayoquot Sound. One of his uncles remembered seeing the last sealing schooner leave Tofino around 1910. Its crew pulled the anchor by hand, hollering with every heave-ho, and then hoisted its topgallant sail catching a light westerly wind out of Clayoquot Sound and into history's economic dustbin. The whalers, sealers, miners and sardine canners all came and went.

The cycle of resource discovery, exploitation and depletion is more than a history lesson to Arnet, who was a schoolteacher for many years. His grandfather, father and uncles were all fishermen. Soon after graduating from UBC in 1962, he too bought a salmon troller to fish during the summer holidays. He loved the sea, but left the fishing industry in the early 1980s.

“I could see that the salmon fishing was declining,” he says. “It was being over-exploited and there was no commitment by the government to protect the salmon's habitat.”

It was a familiar story to Arnet: history repeating itself.

What's so different about the shellfish resource? Arnet explains that shellfish aquaculture has the potential to be a truly sustainable, long-term industry because oysters, scallops and other shellfish depend on a pristine marine ecosystem. It's a relatively pollution-free industry with minimal impacts on marine habitat.

Arnet was one of the first to pioneer oyster farming in Clayoquot Sound, starting Lagoon Island Mariculture Ltd. in 1985. He set three long-lines of oysters on the west side of Lemmens Inlet adjacent to Meares Island. The inlet contained fertile waters with a good current and nutrients. Two years later he harvested his first crop, 500 gallons of shucked oysters. He was ripe for expansion.

“We ploughed that money from our first harvest backing into more seed and floats for the farm,” he says. The company grew slowly throughout the 1990s, investing little by little, year to year.

In 2000, Arnet received approval to double his farm to 10 hectares, but didn't have the revenue to self-finance such quick growth. He needed two new floating platforms, one for a caretaker's cabin and a second for storage and a work shed. He also needed a bigger skiff. He had about $10,000 in working capital, but needed another $50,000. That's when he approached Ecotrust Canada Capital.

Arnet also worked with Ecotrust Canada Capital's parent nonprofit on the Working Sound Project to promote the development of a conservation-based industry in the region. Arnet says the potential is great; the sound has the capacity to produce many more shellfish and global demand is on the upswing.

And the sound's clean water and rich nutrients produce a premiere oyster that is second-to-none. “It's one of our goals to create a quality brand locally and internationally,” Arnet says.

Arnet, now in his seventies, sees a prosperous future in shellfish in Clayoquot Sound. He knows that one generation can't get rich at the expense of the next. He has already sold part of his business to his nephew, Derek, who is tending the oyster farm. After four generations, the Arnets are still very much a pioneering family in Clayoquot Sound.