The federal government was wrong to reverse the awarding of a quota for Arctic surf clam to a First Nations bid that involved a local company.

Last February, it was announced by then fisheries minister Dominic LeBlanc the department would be issuing a fourth Arctic surf clam licence to Five Nations Clam Company, led by Elsipogtog First Nation and Premium Seafoods based out of Arichat.

On August 10, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) announced in a news release it will no longer issue a licence to Five Nations and gave no reasons for the decision. They went on that a new Arctic surf clam licence will not be issued in 2018.

A new expression of interest process will be launching next year with submissions being evaluated by an independent third-party who will make recommendations to the DFO. The department said whoever is chosen to receive the licence is expected to be fishing by 2020.

The Arctic surf clam is a bright red tongue-shaped seafood that is exported to Asia where it is used in sushi and is known as hokkigai or bei gei bei. The First Nations quota – some 9,600 tonnes a year – was a prize valued at tens of millions of dollars.

The license, which was awarded based on the benefits it provided to the Indigenous community, sparked controversy when it was unclear exactly how involved the Indigenous community was with Five Nations Clam Company.

On March 2, the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs, which represents 13 communities across Nova Scotia, called for a full and immediate review of the process used to award the licence.

The assembly said in a press release it was very disappointed in the decision because their unsuccessful bid was 100 per cent Mi’kmaq-owned, with jobs and economic benefits for all Nova Scotians.

The assembly said the successful bid did not promote reconciliation because Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq communities had not signed on to work with Five Nations Clam Company.

The assembly went on that the lack of information surrounding why the successful candidates were chosen required further investigation.

After the assembly issued their statement, Premier Stephen McNeil confirmed on March 2 that he wrote a letter to Ottawa during the application process in support of the Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq.

On May 11, it was confirmed that the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion launched an examination under the Conflict of Interest Act into the quota decision.

That same day, the Fisheries Council of Canada said the decision undermined Canada’s fisheries sector, impacting economic growth opportunities in Canada’s coastal communities.

Court records filed in April declared Five Nations was only 25 per cent Indigenous-owned, with the remainder in the hands of Premium Seafoods.

Minister LeBlanc also faced criticism for possibly having family ties to Five Nations Clam Company. Federal Tories suggested a relative of LeBlanc’s wife had financial stakes in the winning bid.

All three Arctic surf clam licences are currently held by Clearwater Seafoods which rightfully welcomed the minister’s decision, announcing they are ready to harvest the 25 per cent of the clam quota for 2018 and 2019.

This was in sharp contrast to last winter when Clearwater announced it was pursuing legal options. The company said it invested hundreds of millions to develop the fishery and the market, including $156 million in the previous three years. They called last winter’s quota announcement an attempt to “expropriate investment value and undermine the good faith capital investment decisions of the private sector.”

Clearwater, which owns a lobster holding facility in Cap Auguet, said at the time they were required to make adjustments to the business to maintain shareholder value, reduce the overcapacity that was created by the decision, and protect the value of the hundreds of remaining jobs.

In September 2017, the minister announced his intention to introduce a fourth license for Arctic surf clam representing 25 per cent of the Total Allowable Catch for that fishery.

There was an eight-week Expression of Interest process beginning September 7, 2017. Applicants were required to be majority owned by Canadians, demonstrate an ability to comply with all the measures set out in the existing conditions of the licence, and be an Indigenous entity located in one of the four Atlantic provinces or Quebec.

Prior to the minister’s announcement in September 2017, Clearwater and the Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq communities proposed a commercial arrangement.

Clearwater previously held three licences covering 100 per cent of the quota for Arctic surf clams. In 2016, Clearwater’s revenue from Arctic surf clam sales was $91.9 million, which represented approximately 15 per cent of the company’s total revenue.

It’s now clear that the federal government skittishly caved-in to economic and political pressure, ignoring the fact that the successful bid fulfilled all their criteria, including the participation of First Nations.

When the announcement was made last February, the DFO said the winning bid would significantly enhance Indigenous participation in the offshore fishery in Atlantic Canada, calling it “a powerful step toward reconciliation.”

The DFO said it assessed proposals by the direct and significant benefits that will be generated for Indigenous communities including shore-based employment, skills training and other community benefits. According to the DFO, priority was given to proposals received from multiple communities that could demonstrate the ability to collectively manage this fishery to benefit several Indigenous communities.

While the DFO was stringent in selecting candidates for the quota, the Five Nations Clam Company – a new entity comprised of First Nations from Quebec, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick partnering with Premium Seafoods to harvest, process and market the catch – hit all the marks.

In response to claims that the First Nation involvement with the bid was lacking, Potlotek First Nation confirmed their participation in the Five Nations Clam Company last winter.

Meanwhile, Premium Seafoods has enjoyed a working relationship with numerous First Nations communities for over 15 years and has over 30 years experience in processing, purchasing and distributing various seafood species throughout the world. The company holds offshore fishing licenses, processes crab and groundfish, and buys and sells lobsters.

Premium was forced to temporarily close its modern, state-of-the-art shrimp processing plant in Arichat due to significant reductions in shrimp quotas and the company, employees and the communities of Isle Madame were excited to participate in the surf clam fishery.

So what changed in the past seven months? How did a bid that was not only selected but endorsed by the DFO go from participating in a lucrative fishery that promised so much for so many, to quickly having the door slammed in its face?

Without any prior warning to those affected and the complete absence of any explanation from the federal government, the public only has unanswered questions and unfulfilled promise.