In the heart of Great Bear Sea, a scallop farm turns ‘science into profit’

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Coastal Shellfish's scallop aquaculture is located in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, with operations in Prince Rupert and on the Great Bear Sea. Photo by Emilee Gilpin

Great Bear Scallops

For Coastal Shellfish Corporation, a scallop aquaculture venture located on the rainy northwest coast of British Columbia, two things matter most: sustainable business in an area too familiar with the boom and bust of fishing industries, and that their activities cause as little harm to the natural environment as possible.

Coastal Shellfish’s operations, comprised of a greenhouse, hatchery, and three open-ocean sites, are located in the heart of the Great Bear Sea, earning their product the name ‘Great Bear Scallops.’

Scallop farms aren’t new in Canada. There have been many attempts to run a successful hatchery for the tasty mollusks in different coastal communities over the years, but it’s a fickle business, Coastal Shellfish’s CEO Michael Uehara told me, and to succeed takes just the right balance between western science, traditional knowledge and a dash of diverse experiences.

Chapter 1

Vehicle of restoration

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The Coastal Shellfish crew goes out every week to harvest the product from three open-ocean sites where they have been feeding off of wild algae for a few years. Photo by Emilee Gilpin

Sustainable economic development

I met Uehara at the Coast Harbour Inn in Prince Rupert.

When I told him I was interested in learning about the First Nations-owned scallop farm, he offered a tour of the operations. We talked shop in the lounge, before heading over to the greenhouse and hatchery to see how the company nurtures the young mollusks and their algae feedstock.

Scallops, which are found in the oceans across the world, can grow to be as big as your hand and are prized for their tasty fatty adductor muscle interior. Scallop aquaculture has been around since the 1950s, with China and Japan leading in global production.

Prince Rupert is situated on the traditional unceded territory of the Tsimshian Nation, which is comprised of seven distinct communities (Metlakatla, Gitga’at, Gitxaala, Lax Kw’alaams, Kitasoo, Kitsumkalem, Kitselas). The Metlakatla First Nation’s main village is a 20-minute boat ride from Rupert’s port. The nation, through the Metlakatla Development Corporation, agreed to take majority ownership of the Coastal Shellfish Corporation (51 percent) in an effort to support sustainable economic development for their community. The corporation has invested some $20 million into the venture, with Metlakatla Development Corporation's investment about half of that.

Michael Uehara was born in Honolulu, but is a “home is where I lay my hat” kind of guy, and he has worn many hats over the years, including a gig as a creative director and magazine editor in Japan for 16 years. He also owned a restaurant in Tokyo for about three years, before moving to Prince Rupert. After running a wilderness lodge in Rupert for a few years (the first in the area to sign a protocol agreement with a First Nation - the Gitga’at of Hartley Bay), Uehara joined the advisory board for what was then called the 'Shellfish Aquaculture Initiative' in 2004.

Coastal First Nations, an alliance of nine B.C. First Nations dedicated to sustainable economic development that protects the Great Bear Rainforest, had been toying with the idea of a scallop farm for many years. CFN is comprised of chiefs, matriarchs and community leaders from coastal communities dedicated to working together for a shared vision - conservation-based economic growth that recognizes Indigenous title and rights, and protects Indigenous cultures and sacred ecosystems.

CFN wanted to develop industries that would be sustainable in a post-clear cutting world, Uehara told me - industries in which people could make a living without causing more harm to the precious ecosystems in the last temperate rainforest in the world. Though CFN tried scallop farms in different communities over the years, it was the Metlakatla Development Corporation and their dedicated partners who saw the project through to where it is today.

The Metlakatla Development Corporation has a variety of investments and partnerships, but according to Hereditary Chief and Elected Chief Councillor Harold Leighton, Coastal Shellfish reflects the nation’s values. Chief Leighton also sits on CFN’s board.

“Metlakatla sees Coastal Shellfish as a multi-faceted initiative that delivers on profitability, wealth creation, sustainable food supply and economic development,” Chief Leighton wrote in an email statement. “The project turns science into profit, while relying heavily on traditional knowledge.”

But the scallop business will also serve as a vehicle of restoration for the North Coast, he wrote, restoring an ocean-based economy and working towards restoring the health of the ocean environment. Shellfish aquaculture “changes the way we interact with the sea,” he wrote, “as a zero-input non-extractive source of seafood” in a climate of dwindling fish stocks.

One third of Coastal Shellfish is owned by Coastal First Nations (which also owns copyright on the name ‘Great Bear Scallops’) and the remaining 16 per cent is held by a Chinese investor, Hedy Nan.

Chapter 2

Science + traditional knowledge

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From inside the hatchery, where algae is grown. Depending on the time of season, Coastal Shellfish will experiment with different species of algae, usually using about five at a time. Photo by Emilee Gilpin

Not a linear process

Shellfish aquaculture is a zero-input industry, which means no pesticides, fertilizers or other pollutants enter the ocean as a result of its operations. The shellfish eat algae - first the algae that is grown in the greenhouse, and later wild algae from the ocean. When the shellfish are brought out to the ocean sites, in cases where there are blooms of algae, they are actually restoring balance to the environment through their feasting.

A successful shellfish aquaculture equation relies on a functioning seed supply. The hatchery shellfish feed off of the algae grown in the greenhouse, until they’re big enough to graduate to the open sea for a few years before harvest. But when it comes to the success of the business, Uehara said his team has learned that success requires collaboration between science and traditional knowledge, the inclusion of a diversity of experiences and perspectives, and a commitment to a longer-term vision of sustainable jobs for the remote coastal community.

“If I told you exactly what we do in our hatchery, and you tried to open a hatchery even 40 miles away, there’s no guarantee of success, that’s how fickle the calculations are,” Uehara told me, as we made our way to the hatchery in his zero-emission Nissan Leaf electric vehicle. “We rely on the people who have the knowledge about what has gone on in the past here, not just with algae, but in general with all the changes over the years… It’s the collision of traditional knowledge and science, and if anything will test your fidelity to linear thinking, this is it.”

When we got to the greenhouse, that looked to me like a mix between a brewery and a science lab, I got a tour from one of the employees, Andrew Llewellyn. As we walked through the facilities, Llewellyn showed me which containers held the algae. I was surprised to learn that they use and experiment with different species of algae. At the moment, they’re using five, but they keep a lot more around, he told me.

The algae starts to cultivate in a small laboratory off of the greenhouse, before being transferred into bigger bottles and eventually the bigger reservoirs, Llewellyn told me on on Apr. 9 visit. Photo by Emilee Gilpin
Llewellyn said he stepped off the boat working years as a fisherman, and over time learned the fickle science of shellfish aquaculture. Photo by Emilee Gilpin

Llewellyn isn’t a scientist in the western sense of the word, but he has lived his whole life in Prince Rupert, and he has seen every scallop spawn since 2013, which is why Uehara calls him the “walking institutional memory.” No two spawns are the same, Llewellyn explained, and there’s no simple recipe.

“Just like you and me, every scallop is different, and you just have to watch them carefully and go by feel,” he said.

Llewellyn showed me where the shellfish are cultivated, explaining how they've learned how probiotics work better than antibiotis, when to transfer the food from smaller containers to the large reservoirs, how nutrients, carbon dioxide and algae interact; and the appropriate temperatures for spawning.

He then showed me tiny shellfish, smaller than the smallest pad of your smallest finger, which would grow in the hatchery for three to seven months, or until they are big enough to bring to the ocean (and too big for hungry crabs to mess with).

The algae diet, in both farmed and wild environments, means Great Bear Scallops are less environmentally intrusive than the west coast’s salmon farming industry, where Atlantic salmon are fed pellets.

“We don’t have to spend copious amounts of money to feed them, just for maintenance, labour, nets and boat travel,” Llewellyn later told me, as we made our way through the hatchery, where shellfish of various ages were kept in different bins regulated at different ideal spawning temperatures. “Sustainability is what I like… we’re making a sustainable seafood, and we’re growing, with a potential to have a lot more jobs in the community.”

I asked Llewellyn how he learned this complicated delicate process, without a science degree, and he said he learned from the managers, experts and staff who have come and gone from the operations over the years - people from Australia, France, China and Chile, each of whom brought their own experience growing scallops. At this point, Uehara walked in on our conversation and added that the scientists learned just as much from Llewellyn and the other locals. Shellfish aquaculture is no place for linear thinking, he said, it is a mix of imagination, science and traditional knowledge.

Chapter 3

A way of life

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Henry Clifton spent his whole life on the water, up and down the coast, in every inlet, and his invaluable place-based knowledge is an essential part of Coastal Shellfish's success. Photo by Emilee Gilpin

We keep it clean, there's enough pollution already

The company employs about 40 staff members, but the number of full-time employees is expected to grow to about 100 people, he said. Coastal Shellfish pays an average wage of $22/hr, making it difficult to compete with port jobs, where long-shoring employment can pay much higher wages, but he thinks the values of the company may attract the right kind of people for the job.

The majority of the Coastal Shellfish staff are Indigenous. This is an important factor, according to Henry Clifton, Coastal Shellfish’s boat captain, a man who knows the sea as well as he knows himself.

“I have been a fisherman all my life,” Clifton said, as I joined the crew the next morning, to go out and check on some of the product and bring those ready for harvest back to shore. Clifton has been working with Coastal Shellfish for the last five years. He’s a lifelong hunter, trapper, and has been captain on all kinds of vessels, including those fishing for salmon, halibut, and herring, and can offer invaluable experience to the entire operation.

We headed to Wolf Island, as the sun slowly emerged from the clouds and the cluster of buildings behind us. We were six all together - Clifton, myself, Danielle Simard (farm data manager), and three workers (Kevin Llewellyn, Barry Vickers, Christine Wilson). Clifton said his number one rule on board is safety.

“I teach them the knots, the weather, and most importantly, safety. My rule is to be safe. We work as a family, that’s the biggest part with Coastal Shellfish, to work as a family,” Clifton said.

“We don’t damage any scallops, especially the young ones. When we have cut lines or damaged buoys, we don’t throw anything overboard. We want to keep nature clean, there’s enough pollution already,” he said.

Clifton is passionate about the health of the waters and protection of habitat. His great grandfather was one of the founders of the Native Brotherhood, founded in the Tsimshian community of Port Simpson in 1931. The group fought for land claims, Indigenous rights, better schooling, and even the right for women to vote.

Clifton is one of the executives of today’s brotherhood, and said in recent years, their efforts have mostly consisted of dealing with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and advocating for the protection of habitat from logging, chemicals, farming, and excessive sport fishing.

“From the mouth of the Skeena to the head, there are different problems. I don’t mind sport fishing, but just not in areas we need to protect for spawning and rearing for the young ones,” he told me. “Some people do things for pleasure, without understanding the consequences. When we were hunting or fishing, my brothers and I would always check on the fish on the way up the river, or how our deer or other animal populations were doing.”

The values of respect and sustainability were passed on to him from his grandparents, aunts, uncles and parents, he said, and it’s more than a job, it’s a way of life.

“Somebody once asked me if I will retire one day, and I said - What’s that? A fisherman doesn’t know what that means… we die on the boat,” he said.

Danielle Simard told me her official title is “data farm manager.” She was brought on about a year and a half ago, with a diploma in biological technology sciences and management experience with Starbucks, where she learned she was good with people but not so good at promoting a product she saw as unsustainable, unnecessary, and harmful for the environment.

After “chomping through the woods” in the Peace River region in B.C., gathering data, she joined the Coastal Shellfish family at a time when she expects “it’s just about to explode.”

Danielle Simard monitors the baby shellfish, keeping track of mortality rates, health and growth on Apr. 10. Photo by Emilee Gilpin​​​​

Kevin Llewellyn, Barry Vickers and Henry Clifton work in silence, sorting through the shellfish that are ready for harvest, crabs that have snuck in the nets on Apr. 10. Photo by Emilee Gilpin

Simard gathers inventory on the product, monitoring survival and growth rates. Using an image processing program, she takes pictures of the shellfish, at various ages, to examine and label once back at the office. Simard also works in staff and operational management, leaning on her prior management experience to help organize Coastal Shellfish staff, duties and schedules.

The early morning passed into mid-morning and the steady work continued, as lines were pulled up by the rig, to be checked and surveyed, or pulled in for sorting. The crew stopped briefly to eat their lunches and fill up on steaming-hot coffee and tea before turning up the music (a mix of 90s R&B and classic rock) and getting back to it. When Clifton wasn’t on deck, helping to sort through the product, he communicated with the crew from the wheel as they signalled back and forth speaking ‘Fisherman’s sign language,’ to get as much of the product as possible into the facilities for cleaning in the afternoon.

Chapter 4

Huge potential

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No one scallop is like the other, I was told on Apr. 10, as we visited one of three open-sea sites to harvest the live product. Photo by Danielle Simard

Fat, fresh, delicious

Scallops are the highest-value seafood product in mass production in North America. In the U.S., the number one port for seafood landings is in Bedford, Massachusetts, which produces seven times more than the number two port, in Dutch Harbour, Alaska, Uehara told me, as we sat down at Fukasaku Japanese Restaurant in Prince Rupert that night, ready to taste the local version.

“On a per pound basis, this product has a huge potential,” he said.

Everyone I spoke with told me there would be more jobs - more boats and captains needed, as well as labour jobs and technical support.

“We need more people to manage the knowledge, so to speak,” Uehara said, stopping to place an order with Fusaku’s owner Daisuke Fukasaku in Japanese so I wouldn’t know what to expect. “This industry holds the promise of future jobs, where other fisheries on the coast see jobs declining… Our jobs are going to be 12 months of the year, because the algae and product have to grow, be attended to, monitored and harvested.”

Fukasaku is one of a handful of buyers in Prince Rupert. Live sales in Rupert will make up less than two per cent of Coastal Shellfish's sales, Uehara told me, but Coastal Shellfish is preparing to “sell in earnest in June.” At that point, most sales will be to restaurants and high-end supermarkets in Vancouver through a distributor. Eventually the company wants to expand into other Canadian cities, and then look to the U.S. and international markets, either via distributors or direct sales.

What followed the conversation was a shockingly creative dining experience. We started the meal with a dehydrated scallop soup, followed by scallops with wild salmon, melted-yet-crispy brie cheese smothered in a light Alfredo sauce. Fukasaku brought over scallop gyoza, and finally, a plate of assorted sashimi and sushi, all involving scallops prepared in incredibly imaginative ways.

Most of Coastal Shellfish's competition comes from frozen products from North America’s east coast, and Uehara thinks their customers appreciate a live fresh animal over a frozen product. I know I did. The first Great Bear Scallop offered to me was in the facilities, where they had just come in from harvest, were cleaned up, shucked open and served - fat, fresh and delicious. Now, as we finished our meal at Fukasaku, I thought back to the big basins of algae, the day of intensive labour out on the water, the stories shared throughout the day, and I felt entirely full, in more ways than one.