Prince Rupert has a long and storied history in the seafood industry, once home to large-scale commercial fishing operations, canneries and processing plants. But much of that history is just that — history. Now, Coastal Shellfish, an Indigenous aquaculture company, is slowly changing the tides as it builds its business and sells its first product: Great Bear Scallops.
“Prince Rupert produces some of the most iconic seafood in the world,” Michael Uehara, president and CEO of the company, said in an interview.
Coastal First Nations — an alliance of nine nations on B.C.’s central and north coast — started exploring the viability of shellfish aquaculture in the region in 2003, testing various species including oysters and geoducks. In 2013, the nations formed Coastal Shellfish, with Metlakatla First Nation as the majority owner, and started producing scallops. Three-quarters of employees are Indigenous.
The decision to focus on scallops was based on sustainability, Uehara said. Scallops are filter feeders, so farming them in the ocean means they clean the water while they grow.
“Our idea essentially establishes what amounts to a restorative ocean patch that would create ecological benefits, but more importantly, not create ecological harm, and delivers, at least calorically, a tremendous amount of sustenance.”
Coastal Shellfish operates a hatchery and ocean farm sites, and last year opened a processing plant. Uehara said it’s the first seafood plant on the north coast to open its doors in about 15 years.
“A couple of years ago, I said that once we started selling scallops live in Prince Rupert, we would become the live scallop capital of North America by virtue of the fact that nobody else is doing it,” he said with a laugh.
‘Nothing says inclusion like ownership’
The concept of establishing sustainable Indigenous-led businesses on the West Coast was a prominent part of the Great Bear Rainforest Act, an agreement between the B.C. government, the Coastal First Nations and other First Nations whose territories are within the area. The agreement became official in 2016 and had been in the works since the late 1990s.
The agreement includes land and marine use management plans, which were announced in 2006. As part of these plans, the provincial and federal governments each contributed $30 million to support conservation and sustainable economic development projects, matching $60 million contributed by philanthropists and conservation groups.
The donors, governments and First Nations agreed to set up a trust called Coast Funds to administer the money to Indigenous projects that meet the goals of the agreement. Coastal Shellfish was the first project Coast Funds supported.
Brodie Guy, executive director of Coast Funds, said the trust has invested $4.7 million to date in Coastal Shellfish, including providing funding last year to support the development of the processing plant. He added the intent of all this investment is to shift the north coast economy from one based on extraction by outside interests to one that is driven by local and First Nations interests.
“Coastal Shellfish is really an amazing result of the vision that communities had 20 years ago,” he said.
Uehara said seeing the vision become reality is gratifying. “Our goal has been fairly ambitious to produce … an economy of inclusion for Indigenous communities in coastal British Columbia,” Uehara said. “And quite frankly, nothing says inclusion like ownership.”
Scallop aquaculture is new to B.C. waters
Marine biologist Brian Kingzett is vice-president of the company and runs the technical side of operations. He said the project has had its fair share of challenges. Scallop larvae are microscopic and extremely sensitive.
“If you look at them sideways, they die,” he said in an interview.
Scallops produce as many as 30 million eggs in a single spawning event, he said. “The idea is that one will survive.”
To successfully grow scallops for a commercial operation, the Coastal Shellfish technical team had to figure out how to increase that survival rate. In the hatchery environment, naturally occurring bacteria in the water can either sustain the scallops or kill them. It took years of trial and error to determine the right mixture of bacteria that allows the animals to survive and thrive.
“We’ve found a recipe of probiotic marine bacteria just like the probiotics in your yogurt,” Kingzett said.
In the hatchery, the scallops also need a food source. “They have very high nutritional requirements, so we spend most of our time actually growing the food, the phytoplankton that we feed them,” he said.
From the hatchery, the shellfish are transferred to the ocean, where they are susceptible to the smallest changes in the marine environment. “We’re a lot like a terrestrial farmer trying to learn what his farm will do, except we can’t add nutrients to the soil,” Kingzett said.
Unlike farming fish such as salmon, shellfish aquaculture poses very little ecological risk. Farmed fish are fed a variety of ingredients in pellet form, while farmed shellfish get their food from the natural environment. Wasted pellets and faeces from farmed fish enter the marine landscape and can cause the oxygen content of the water to decrease, impacting other aquatic species.
Fish aquaculture also introduces chemicals into the ocean from feed, disease treatments and cleaning products used on containment structures. Farmed salmon in particular can transfer diseases and sea lice to wild salmon.
Farmed fish can also escape from containment areas and compete with wild populations. The very nature of shellfish like scallops means the chance of escape is slim. And in restorative aquaculture operations like Coastal Shellfish, sustaining the natural ecosystem is embedded in the process.
Because there are very few scallop aquaculture operations in North America, Coastal Shellfish has largely had to rely on ingenuity to achieve success. The company recently hired a young biologist from Hokkaido, Japan, with experience in scallop aquaculture.
“At least on the farming side, we’re trying to borrow more tech and ideas from Japan, where it’s very well established,” Kingzett said.
He added that there are still a lot of unknowns, but Coastal Shellfish has steadily increased its operations and the product itself is quickly becoming a sought-after item in high-end Vancouver restaurants.
Sustainability and food security at forefront
While Vancouver makes up a large part of Coastal Shellfish’s market, Uehara stressed the importance of creating food security in the northwest and pointed to the pandemic as an indicator of that need. B.C. imports much of what ends up on grocery store shelves — in the early days of the pandemic, a lot of those shelves were suddenly empty.
“We’re facing incidental shortages of things that we have no idea where they came from,” Uehara said. “I think we owe it to ourselves to start exploring the possibility of supplying ourselves.”
Kingzett agreed and said it’s a global issue. “We’re gonna hit 10 billion people whether we like it or not by 2050. And because seafood consumption is increasing rapidly, the pressure on the world’s oceans is huge.”
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The commercial fishing industry in northwest B.C. still exists, but much of what is caught is shipped south for processing and isn’t available to locals. “The long and short of it is the seafood economy of Prince Rupert and the north coast is a shadow of its former self,” Kingzett said.
How do you revive that local seafood economy? Look for long-term sustainability.
“We’ve got a history of resource extraction, either in wood or fish or mining or whatever, and to a certain degree that’s still happening,” Kingzett said. “The idea here is to hit all pillars of sustainability.”
The new plant is located in a former fish processing plant and offers jobs to people who previously worked there.
Before the plant opened, Coastal Shellfish wasn’t able to sell the live scallops directly to local businesses because they had to first go through a licensed plant. The nearest plant was in Vancouver, 16 hours away by truck. As soon as the company opened the local plant, its first customer was Daisuke Fukasaku, owner and chef of Fukasaku restaurant on Prince Rupert’s waterfront.
“The focus of my business is sustainability and locality,” he said in an interview. “The first thing I want to do is to show my customers how fresh scallops are. So having scallops on the shell in my fridge is one of my greatest appreciations.”
Before Coastal Shellfish, Fukasaku could only buy scallops from Vancouver, after they’d been shucked and cleaned. “All I wanted was scallops in the shell.”
Now, he proudly features the product on his menu. “They have [a] really great mindset,” he said of the people behind Coastal Shellfish. “I always have fun working with them and they support my business in so many ways. We are like good partners, like best partners.”
Uehara said Coastal Shellfish has been steadily selling scallops to several local businesses. “I was so happy to see that the local consumers here have become a viable part of the market.”
One unlikely customer is the local brewery, Wheelhouse Brewing. Head brewer Craig Outhet wanted to try reviving an old beer recipe he’d stumbled upon. He said the history of oyster stouts goes back to Victorian times, when oysters were a bar snack.
“In the 1920s, some breweries in New Zealand started adding oysters directly into their stouts during the brewing process,” he said in an interview.
Outhet thought it would be interesting to try substituting scallops for oysters, so he bought a large quantity from Coastal Shellfish, shucked and cleaned them, and put them in during mashing, the first part of the brewing process.
“I took the scallops out of the mash and they were warm and partially cooked, so I ate them — and they were good.”
When he transferred the partially brewed beer to the kettle, it had already acquired a strong briny flavour. He had intended to add a number of shells but found he didn’t need to. “Now I use a lot less scallops than I’d originally intended and I eat them all.”
Uehara said he hasn’t tried the stout but is a regular Fukasaku customer.
Coastal Shellfish explores vertical farming, growing ‘zombie urchins’
With local and regional markets established and growing, Coastal Shellfish is starting to explore expansion plans and the possibility of producing other species. The company is also looking into vertical farming, which involves suspending apparatuses at different levels in the water.
Coastal Shellfish is considering farming kelp and sea urchins, also known as “zombie urchins” due to their insatiable appetite for kelp. When sea otters were hunted to near-extinction in the 19th century, sea urchins suddenly had no predators and decimated kelp forests. While sea otters have made a comeback, there is still an imbalance in the ecosystem, which the company thinks it could help rectify.
Kingzett said the idea is to take the urchins out of the fishery, bring them to the vertical ocean farm and feed them with farmed kelp until they’re big enough to sell. Sea urchin gonads, known as uni, are a delicacy in Japan and popular in sushi.
Kingzett said he can grow more kelp in Prince Rupert than anywhere on the coast because of its clean, cold and productive waters but doesn’t have a market to sell it. By using farmed kelp to feed urchins, the company could provide a solution that not only helps the ecosystem but also continues to build a sustainable local economy.
“The idea is to use what we’re doing with the scallops as the backbone of rebuilding this Indigenous-driven seafood economy.”