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A strategy to build a wholly new industry on the North Coast

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Twelve First Nations, through the Tsimshian Stewardship Committee and Turning Point Initiative, launched a North Coast shellfish strategy in 2003. Ecotrust Canada was hired to manage the project.

North of Cape Caution lies some eight million hectares of coastal temperate rainforest and half of British Columbia’s coastline. Yet the richness of the region’s seas and forests belie the poverty of its people. According to an economic hardship index, the North Coast is the poorest region in the province with the highest rate of depopulation and highest dependence on income assistance. Welcome to Canada’s Forgotten Coast.

It is not—and never has been—forgotten to the people who’ve called it home for thousands of years. The local First Nations are fighting to gain greater control over their adjacent resources in order to create much-needed jobs and wealth in their communities. That’s what precipitated 12 First Nations, through the Tsimshian Stewardship Committee and Turning Point Initiative, to launch a wholly new industry that could be worth $25 million and create some 300 jobs. The industry is shellfish aquaculture.

“Shellfish aquaculture fits with our Aboriginal culture. It is very similar to how we traditionally managed bivalves,” says Bruce Watkinson, executive director of the Tsimshian Stewardship Committee. “Everyone is familiar with clams and cockles. Our communities have always practiced shellfish stewardship and culture in some form.”

Scientists, in fact, have found stone remnants of ancient “clam gardens,” archaeological evidence of prehistoric subsistence aquaculture on the coast. With its experience in lending and business consulting with Clayoquot Sound shellfish growers, Ecotrust Canada was hired by the Tsimshian Stewardship Committee in 2003 to help launch this new industry.

The strategy included holding community consultations, constructing and seeding 12 pilot shellfish farms, training local First Nations in shellfish husbandry and developing a comprehensive business plan which details the viability of shellfish production and marketing. The results were encouraging. Scallops, oysters and mussels showed healthy growth rates thanks to the nutrient-rich inlets and bays. A feasibility study estimated that a North Coast industry could be worth $25 million in wholesale value, doubling the province’s shellfish production.

“The enthusiasm has been steady from the First Nation leadership and communities,” says Watkinson. “There is a lot of pressure to get this new industry going as fast as we can.”

Next steps include expanding the pilot farms, creating a shellfish development corporation and raising capital to finance the industry’s growth. “One of the major accomplishments is that we are getting a dozen First Nations to work together,” Watkinson says. “A lot of people are watching to see how such a large First Nation conglomerate can launch a new industry. It’s a big step for us to take the lead in building a bold new industrial strategy.”