Great Bear Scallops winners of B.C. Sustainability Award

First Nations owned company not just starting a business, but growing an industry

Coastal Shellfish has always placed sustainability at the centre of their business plan, and now the northern-B.C. company can put it on their mantle as winners of the BC Food and Beverage 2020 Sustainability Award for its Great Bear Scallops.

“We’re in a remote corner of the province in Prince Rupert, here in the corner of the Great Bear Rainforest. It’s exciting to be on the edge of a burgeoning industry in shellfish aquaculture … but we never thought the kind of recognition we’d get was ever possible,” Michael Uehara, Coastal Shellfish CEO and president said.

“This is a First Nations — Indigenous-owned business whose mission it is to recreate an economy of inclusion on the coast. This award is a big shot in the arm. We’re quite pleased. We’re thrilled.”

The annual awards gala of the BC Food Processors Association was held online Sept. 24, hosted by Fred Lee with special appearances by BC Minister of Agriculture Lana Popham and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. The Sustainability Award is given to a company that shows leadership in sustainable practices and contributes to helping the environment.

Great Bear Scallops was recognized, in part, for using a zero-input, non-invasive vertical farming method. The judges also noted harvesting is done only once per week for pre-booked orders, limiting the farm sites’ exposure to harvesting vessels. And because the scallops are sold live (a rarity) they require very little processing.

Suspended shellfish operations, like Coastal Shellfish’s lantern nets submerged on the end of longlines, are universally regarded as the most ecologically friendly at-sea farming method available to food producers. It encourages a diversity of habitat within its footprint because the shellfish don’t require other animals for food, but instead clean the surrounding waters with their filter-feeding nature.

B.C.’s algae-abundant coastline is known for influencing some of the tastiest shellfish in the world.

A burgeoning industry

Coastal Shellfish is one of three companies partially owned by the Great Bear Business Corporation, created by a seven-nation alliance called the Coastal First Nations, to build a conservation-based economy throughout their ancestral territories. About 15 years ago, once shellfish farming was identified as the likely candidate, years of experimentation were spent selecting the right waters, and the right species to grow.

“They were looking for an industry that had growth potential, an industry of the future that was also truly sustainable. In many respects it [the award] confirms their vision that they can accomplish that, because it’s a pretty lofty goal,” Uehara said.

Before the first scallop was sold, substantial manpower was devoted to the labyrinthine bureaucracy of classifying the waters as open for harvest. This certification makes the Great Bear Scallop the only one in B.C. that can be sold live, and one of the very few on the continent, Uehara said.

READ MORE: Indigenous-owned sustainable scallop farm gets licence

The company’s burgeoning success, and the sustainability award, comes just 19 months after receiving their shellfish processing licence. The goal now is to ramp things up in the next three years to six-million scallops harvested annually.

The end result of Coastal Shellfish’s journey from inception to sales is a scallop commanding the highest price in North America, Uehara said, and finding markets around the world, with China taking the biggest bite of 20 per cent.

With their own hatchery and processing facility, the first federally licenced facility in Canada in 15 years, Uehara makes it clear Coastal Shellfish is not about building a company, but growing an industry.

A fishing community

Prince Rupert, with a population of just 12,000, is known more today as the home of Canada’s third largest deep port container terminal, but at its soul, Uehara said, it’s still a fishing community. With wild-catch fisheries in decline, fishing licences consolidated by large corporations and regulations pushing local catches to southern processing facilities, success carries with it a significant emotional purpose.

“This First Nations-owned business is doing its part to maintain that soul of the north, that soul of the Prince Rupert fisheries industry,” Uehara said.

“The number of iconic species of fish that land to the docks of Prince Rupert is just fantastic, but how many of those can be sold here? We’re able to sell our product directly to the people of Prince Rupert. And it matters. I think it matters to everyone here.”

But how does it taste?

Sustainability, success and inclusive economies fall away if there isn’t a great product to prop it up, but in less than two years of commercial operation, the reputation of the Great Bear Scallop is gaining traction with chefs and foodie media.

READ MORE: Wheelhouse Brewing releases new Great Bear Scallop Stout

“I was really happy they won this award— they deserve it,” Broadcaster and food-and-wine writer behind the Good Life Vancouver blog, Cassandra Anderton said. She recently teamed up with chef Karen Dar Woon to share recipes for a cured and a baked scallop featuring Metlakatla’s popular bivalve.

“First of all, these live scallops arrived super fresh,” Anderton said. “The pristine waters where they’re farmed produce this amazing merroir [site-specific flavour profile absorbed from the marine environment] in these super clean and cool waters. We’re talking nice, dense meat with superb flavours. I’ve ordered them again since.”

Locally, Prince Rupert’s Wheelhouse Brewing Co. partnered with Coastal Shellfish to create a briny Great Bear Scallop Stout with a limited batch every St. Patricks Day.

Coastal Shellfish sold their very first scallop to another local establishment, Fukasaku, the first sushi restaurant in B.C. to be 100 per cent certifed by Vancouver Aqarium’s Ocean Wise Program.

Upon recieving his first order, chef Dai Fukasaku told Black Press Media at the time, “It’s probably the freshest scallops ever.”

READ MORE: Local scallops featured in Fukasaku chef’s chowdown chowder

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Coastal Shellfish crew, Patricia Lewis, left, Dani Robertson, Blake Barton and Barry Vickers showoff a harvest of Great Bear Scallops near Prince Rupert, B.C. After less than two years of commercial operation, the Metlakatla First Nations-owned company won the 2020 BC Food and Beverage Sustainability Award Sept. 24 from the BC Food Processors Association. (Photo supplied by Coastal Shellfish)

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