Clam Wars in Southwest Nova, Parts 1 and 2

This article first appeared as a two-part series in issues 1522 and 1523, published June 15 and 22, 2007. It concerns the growing privatization of the clam industry in southwest Nova Scotia.

The author, Wanda Waterman St. Louis, brings the same perceptive insights to this important topic as to her other work: she is the creator of the always-topical comic The Chronicles of Cruiscin Lan as well as the author of The Mindful Bard, a weekly survey of thought-provoking films, music, and books.

Community-Based Management Versus Backroom Deals

If you’ve driven along the Fundy shores of southwestern Nova Scotia at low tide you may have seen a solitary figure or two lurking at the outer edge of a mud flat, stooping enigmatically over small patches of ground. These people are digging up the little bivalve molluscs that have come to form an indispensable part of the world’s dinner menu. Accomplished by using a bucket and a hack (a sawed-off pitchfork with tines bent perpendicular to the handle), clam harvesting is one of the most cost-effective and environmentally safe ways of making or supplementing a year-round living off the sea.

Clams must be harvested at low tide, which happens twice a day and lasts for only a couple of hours. The clammer searches for holes in the mud and starts digging. Anything smaller than an inch and a half has to be put back into the hole to be allowed to grow to maturity.

Self-employed clammers take the clams home for shucking (shelling and beheading, pronounced SHAW-king) and sale to a licensed clam buyer. Clammers who dig on closed beaches for Innovative Fishery Products (IFP), a local company that buys and processes local clams for export and has become the employer of nearly every clam digger in Digby and Annapolis counties, have only to dig; the IFP truck drives to the beaches where its clammers are digging and loads the clams onto the truck directly from the beach. These clams are taken to the plant for depuration and shucking before being shipped to the buyer.

In the days before IFP’s rise to power clam diggers were an independent lot. A hard worker could support a family and still have time to raise it properly. A digger was not at the mercy of fickle job markets and bosses. Digging required minimal formal education and only the most basic of tools. But since IFP has effectively cornered the market for clams, more and more clam diggers are finding themselves forced to work for the company, and the life just isn’t what it used to be. The absence of benefits wasn’t such a trial when clamming could generate a living wage, but now that diggers are being paid less for clams that are becoming harder to find some of them are wondering what they’ll have to retire on or even what they’re going to feed their kids. When wages drop and employment benefits peter out clam diggers are often forced to go out west to seek a better life, a last resort that has little appeal for community-minded fisher folk for whom family, community, and chosen livelihood trump fancy living.

It is an overcast autumn day in Digby, Nova Scotia. Sea breezes sweeten and cool the air. A dense crowd of clam diggers clad in the traditional regalia of Nova Scotian fisher folk–plaid jackets, duckbill hats, jeans, and rubber boots–is milling along the stretch of road between the boarded-up dairy treat building on the right and the bobby-socks era bowling alley on the left.

Environment Canada classifies clam beaches as either closed (prohibiting public clam harvesting due to mild contamination) or open. The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has ruled that clams on closed beaches can only be harvested by companies with clam purification facilities known as depuration plants. Clams on open beaches can be harvested for commercial purposes by licensed clam diggers, and you and I and anyone else are legally entitled to dig a limited number of clams for personal consumption; British common law has long ruled that tidal beaches are public, and that any goods that can be harvested from them are common property.

IFP is currently the only company in Southwest Nova with an operating depuration plant, and hence the only body that can issue temporary permits to its employees to dig clams on closed beaches. Existing annual licenses permit IFP not only to harvest clams from open beaches like everyone else but also to be the sole harvester of clams on a prime stretch of closed clam beach at the head of St. Mary’s Bay for the next ten years, or until the beach is declared open, whichever comes first. The company is preparing to submit an application for ten-year leases on 14 more closed clam beaches in Nova Scotia. Environmental pollution will probably bolster IFP’s interests; future beach closures could widen the company’s access to more and more closed beaches.

Stuck in the traffic caused by the crowd of clam diggers is IFP’s Doug Bertram. It is his company’s labour practices and resource management that are being protested. Doug Bertram calls to one of the protesters and asks him to fetch Ken Weir, the president of the Digby Clammers Association. Ken arrives and the two hammer out a resolution; if Ken calls a stop to the protest Doug will raise the price of clams to sixty cents a pound. He’ll also hire back every one of the protesters, with the exception of three men he names. But the clammers association has recently agreed that if one of them has been fired for protesting then they have all been fired. Ken walks away. The protest continues.

Stories in local papers have clouded the issue, to the great frustration of stakeholders in this industry. The suggestion is clear; depuration companies are essential to the continued public consumption of clams. What’s more, It’s implied that the clam diggers are low-class, uneducated people who would sell contaminated clams to the queen if it meant another dollar in their pockets. What isn’t mentioned is the fact that local clam diggers have been volunteering their time to valiant efforts to rescue their resource from being wiped out completely.

Another piece of information missing from news coverage is that depuration companies may not be essential to public safety. Clams are self-cleaning organisms that need only to be left to sit in a clean medium for a matter of days in order to become perfectly safe for human consumption.

One way to accomplish this is through relaying, the practice of removing clams from polluted beaches and moving them to clean beaches in order to facilitate self-purification. A New Brunswick study (Robinson 1991) utilized a number of stock enhancement practices, and found relaying to be a highly effective, low impact, and economical means of decontaminating clams.

Local clammers refer to the process as reseeding, a practice which they undertake voluntarily as part of a community-based management initiative in conjunction with the Clean Annapolis River Project. For the Nova Scotia Fundy region clammers, the purpose of reseeding is to bring up diminishing clam stocks, although it enables purification as well. So far clam diggers have only been permitted to remove the small clams from open beaches for use in reseeding other open beaches; they would like to move clams from clam-dense closed beaches but have so far been denied permission by the DFO.

Doug Bertram sends Ken Weir a court injunction demanding an end to the protest, and threatens to fine him $45,000 a day until the protest ends. He tells the other clam diggers that if they continue their protest they will lose their houses. Fearful that Bertram might follow through, Weir calls for an end to the protest. The three men Bertram has named are dismissed, and clam prices remain too low to provide a decent living for the diggers.

In the fall of 2006 the provincial Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture (NSDFA) and the DFO publicly announced the signing of a joint federal-provincial agreement allowing depuration companies already in possession of one-year clam-harvesting licenses to become eligible for ten-year leases on closed beaches. IFP has only to submit an application and have it accepted in order for the company to control access to 14 beaches in the Fundy region. From where the locals are standing the agreement to grant ten-year leases to companies with depuration plants boils down to a backroom deal with IFP to gradually turn over a public resource to a private company, allowing that company to milk resources dry and then move elsewhere; it is a scenario all too familiar to Maritimers, and this time It’s close to being personal.

Clam diggers and activists have long reported that a fawning DFO conceals IFP’s policies and practices to a degree that justly arouses suspicion, and the licensing agreement looks like a pretty solid indication that they were right all along.

?Innovative’s got such a bad system going now,? says Weir, ?why should the government reward it with ten more years??

News of the impending monopoly quickly galvanizes the very groups who should have been consulted in the first place. An informal coalition comprising clam diggers, clam buyers, municipal councillors, First Nations representatives, and social activists agrees that IFP must not be granted ten-year leases to those 14 beaches. They decide to make public the following demands: ?a transparent and public process which will allow for full disclosure of all data upon which the Federal and Provincial governments? decision is based?; and ?a forum for all affected stakeholders to be heard, before the leases are issued.? The groups decide to call representatives of the DFO, the NSDFA, and Environment Canada to a public meeting in Digby.

Doug Bertram of IFP refuses to allow me to quote him, forbids me to record our telephone conversation, and proceeds to rant for twenty minutes. After Weir’s thorough and detailed analysis of the problems confronting the sustainability of the industry which sustains him, Bertram sounds like a yappy terrier. Weir has told me that Bertram once told a clammer who, after working at a breakneck pace managed to pull in $1,200 in one week, that the man did not deserve such wages because he was uneducated. Judging from my telephone conversation with Bertram, I am no longer inclined to doubt the veracity of Weir’s account.

It is January 31, 2007. The Digby municipal building is swarming with many of the same people who were at the protest. They have brought the same signs. They crowd into the municipal chambers where the meeting is scheduled to take place at 7:00. At a string of desks set up in horseshoe formation, officials from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), the Nova Scotia Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture (NSDFA), and Environment Canada sit at microphones. This meeting is presided over by municipal councillor Linda Gregory, a fisherman’s wife who rules the room with an iron hand. She announces that those wishing to ask questions of the seated officials must first approach the microphone in the centre of the horseshoe and introduce themselves.

The clammers at the back of the council chambers start to grumble. ?We ain’t puttin’ up with it. Naw-sir. They better be tellin? us somethin? er there’s hell to pay.?

Linda holds up a finger and restores order with a sharp ?SSHT!?

The clammers in this room, the communities they reside in, and an international market are all dependent upon an industry whose sustainability is now being threatened by a process of privatization secretly in the works for over a dozen years. Local citizens have had no input into this process because they simply did not know about it.

The federal government has long been in the habit of quickly sliding smelly deals under Maritimers? noses in the hopes that they won’t catch a whiff until It’s too late to send the deal back. A recent instance was the Digby wharf fiasco, in which locals were not told money was available to their community for wharf repairs until after a private company had squandered a generous chunk of the taxpayers? money and then left the wharf to rot.

Peter Stoffer, federal NDP fisheries critic, gives voice to the grounds for a growing frustration among Maritime fisher peoples: ?You Maritimers witnessed the largest collapse of a public natural resource in the history of the world in the northern cod. Four billion dollars of your money went to adjust that industry. The corporate people didn’t pay it, you paid it. And not one DFO [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] official was ever held accountable for that. What they’re now allowing is for the company to have unfettered access for ten years with no other entrance into that fishery.?

Stoffer expounds on what is wrong with the privatization process: ?The fish do not belong to the company; they belong to the people of Canada, and the Supreme Court said that in 1997 in the case of Comeau Seafoods versus DFO: ?There is a public right to fish and It’s a common property resource and not to be privatized.? Nothing’s stopping Innovative Fishery Products, the Daley brothers, or Clearwater being sold to outside interests like Americans or Icelanders or whatever, and then you have foreigners controlling a public resource–the fish–just like what’s happening in our forestry industry.?

The existing network of government rules, regulations, and practices has indeed proven fortuitous for IFP. The more beach closures the merrier for a company that stands to increase profits and widen its monopoly every time contaminants are detected in the tidal waters of a clam flat. And thanks to the long series of bureaucratic hoops that have to be jumped through in order to have a closed beach reopened, an indefinite period of time will pass before the company loses access to those beaches.

This scenario might not look quite so bleak if the company had a history of responsible ecological practice. But by its own report, IFP is doing nothing to increase clam stocks. The DFO and the Nova Scotia Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture (NSDFA) claim increased yields in recent years yet provide no evidence of any increase in biomass. In fact, one has only to go to the DFO website to see evidence of declining clam stocks and the suggestion that this may be due to the concentration of clam harvesters on open beaches as a result of increasing beach closures.

Sherry Pictou, of the Bear River First Nation, approaches the mic to point out that aboriginal treaty rights call for consultation with First Nations peoples before publicly owned natural resources can be leased to private businesses, and that no such consultation was initiated by government.

?Why should we agree to this process?? Sherry asks. ?This is a violation of the human right to survival. Show me where this is good.?

A clammer calls out, ?Give that woman a medal!?

Ian Marshall, area director for DFO for South West Nova Scotia, points out that it is easier to hold one leaseholding company responsible to supply uncontaminated product than to monitor the product supplied by several hundred independent clam diggers.

In an earlier conversation, Ken Weir showed some sympathy for the DFO’s quandary, but does not see a monopoly as the only feasible solution to government understaffing. ?There are too many diggers everywhere,? he admits. ?But there are only five plants that buy clams in this area. Just go to the plant. If the clams are small, burn [penalize] the plant, and burn the guy that dug the clams and that would eliminate the problem. But I tell that to DFO and It’s like I got three heads on me or something.?

The DFO insists that the availability of ten-year leases to IFP is necessary to protect the business’s investment in the industry. They also claim that ten-year leases can provide IFP, the one leaseholding company eligible for a ten-year lease, the opportunity to invest in stock enhancement, yet have not demanded that the company engage in stock enhancement or even good environmental stewardship. Tom Vitiello, Annapolis Royal municipal councillor, expresses amazement that ten-year leases will be granted in the absence of an independent study of the company’s environmental practices.

?I am disappointed,? Vitiello shakes his head. ?In fact I am astounded!?

Also astounded is Arthur Bull of the Bay of Fundy Marine Resource Centre, who asks that any decisions the government makes be evidence based. Bull asks Marshall Giles of the NSDFA if the lack of information on company stock enhancement could be made a matter of public record. Giles says no, because the privacy act protects the interests of the company. The room rumbles and groans.

Bull points out that the key point is not the productivity of the company but rather stock assessment, and asks for evidence that the stock has increased. Again his request is refused, but he is told that his questions will be taken back to the office.

Plaid-shirted Mary McWhinney approaches the mic. ?First of all,? she announces in a powerhouse voice, ?I wanna say somethin? to that fuller sittin? over there.? She points to Ian Marshall of the DFO. ?The whole time he was talkin?,? she says, pointing back to Vitiello, ?you was sittin? there with a big smirk on your face. Now you owe him an apology!?

Marshall sheepishly asserts that he meant no harm, that he was not laughing at the councillor, but apologizes anyway. Mary turns back to Vitiello.

?Are you satisfied?? she asks.

?Uh, yes!? he blurts out in amazement. ?I wasn’t aware that he was laughing, so no harm done.?

Mary goes on to ask the officials, ?You said you was here to listen. Has a decision been made yet about these leases? And can anything we say change your mind??

?No one has made an application for these leases yet,? says Marshall Giles.

This keeps getting repeated, not only as if it makes a difference, but also as if it were true. The fact is that IFP has already been granted a ten-year lease on a prime stretch of closed clam beach at the head of St. Mary’s Bay. The company is now poised to submit applications for 14 more closed beaches in the area.

A clammer must harvest at least a ton-and-a-half of clams from open areas before he or she will be hired to dig clams for IFP. This means the open beaches are heavily harvested.

?I’ve never seen the evidence one way or the other but what the clam diggers say is that that could wipe us out,? says Arthur Bull.

Ken Weir claims that many flats are now stripped of clams. The diggers now have to drive up to 30 miles to dig, in a region where once you could walk to a bountiful flat from your own back yard.

Environment Canada undertakes painstaking testing procedures to ensure that clams found beneath contaminated tidal waters do not reach the marketplace without first having been cleansed of impurities. But funds are low and staff are few and so more time than necessary may elapse before a previously closed beach can be reclassified as safe for clam harvesting by anyone but diggers for IFP.

When asked for long-term solutions, Denise Sullivan of the Annapolis Watershed Resource Committee states, ?we’re looking at the way things are done in coastal Maine. Their model is very different from ours in terms of who has legislative authority over the resource, and all of their management is done on a much more local scale.?

Ken Weir and fellow clam harvesters agree, and have been working with the watershed committee to implement the early stages of community-based management in the area: ?DFO aren’t there to help us?they’re out there to help the company. We want community-based management. We want to set limits to conserve our industry.?

From a couple of angles the future looks hopeful. Beaches reseeded by volunteers are now peppered with clams from low- to high-water marks; in two years these clams will reach maturity and be ready for market.

?The Annapolis Watershed Resource Committee are actually looking quite strong,? says Arthur Bull. ?Clamming, unlike codfish, can be brought back a hundred percent. You can actually clean up the beach and clams will grow back, but you have to actually clean it up. You have to manage it. You can’t just leave it.?

Ken Weir reports that the DFO has recently agreed to aggressively enforce size limits, which is one means of increasing clam stocks. In the past, IFP was reputed to be lax in weeding out smaller clams; the marketplace, especially restaurants, relished the smaller clams and so there was little penalty for illegally marketing them. Enforcing size limits is one effective means of protecting the resource.

Things could be rosier. With greater government compliance toward (or less interference in) community-based management, all southwest Nova Scotia clam beaches might indefinitely continue to enrich both the local economy and the international diet. But for now the reseeding is done on the clammers? own time. The clam diggers? associations have submitted a proposal to the DFO requesting that clammers? employment benefits be extended through the summer months to enable the diggers to reseed depleted beaches. Such an arrangement would bring larger numbers of clammers to this endeavour for longer hours, practically guaranteeing its success. So far the proposal has not been rejected but the clammers have been informed that there is no money available for that sort of thing.

Canada’s Oceans Act endorses the involvement of local communities in the management of coastal aquatic resources. But according to a recent paper by Melanie G. Wiber, of the University of New Brunswick’s Anthropology Department, and Arthur Bull, ?. . .the law has more often been deployed in ways that facilitated blocking participatory governance of resource management. Unless and until the political will exists to shift the real barriers to participatory governance, significant changes to governance structures will not emerge? (1).

On the afternoon of May 25, 2007, I received this email from Arthur Bull:

Hi Folks,
I am writing to tell you that I got a call from Greg Roach at Nova Scotia Fisheries and Aquaculture this afternoon, and he told me that the Minister signed the leases [the leases allowing IFC sole harvesting rights for the 14 closed clam beaches mentioned earlier]. He said that there were some changes as a result of our interventions: 1). the areas could be opened if they were tested as clean, 2). the Annapolis River lease is only for five years, 3). the Minister can force the company to cooperate with conservation work, and 4). there will be public access for non clam harvesting use. I do not think any of these makes any difference to the essential privatization of this resource in this place. I think it will take some time to grasp the implications of this . . .

Since receiving Arthur’s email, I came across this quote from the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, which may apply to this situation: ?Power, like a desolating pestilence, pollutes whatever it touches . . .?

Arthur’s message is followed swiftly by this from Sherry Pictou, who has just heard the devastating news:

My heart is overflowing with Grandma Sarah,
Teaching us to dig clams.
As she wrapped our harvest in foil
And cooked it over heated coals beneath the sand
I knew this was for me,
And for my lifetime . . .
And those lifetimes
Before and after me,
Where shell heaps
Bare the answers to existence
In both life and death.
The clam, the beautiful clam,
Hidden within its intergenerational
Purple blue shell,
The food of life,
Ancient food for future generations . . .
Oh my brother,
So contented as you walk slowly
The back road, your bucket full of clams,
Your clam hack,
So serene and quiet,
This walk of ancient paths,
You, carrying so quietly
The ancestral knowledge;
The rest of us
Are too absorbed
In the fast pace of tomorrow
To learn, or feel,
With our hearts, today.
I see you there
With your shucking knife,
For a second
Trying to teach me,
As your ancient laughter,
Of fathers and grandfathers
Before you,
Rings loud to this day
In my heart of all hearts
As I struggle to learn
This art now floating along
Bay shores and inlets,
And continue to do so
Today . . .

If you would like to help, please share the following concerns with Loyola Hearn, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans:

? that the government actively support community-based management of fisheries in Nova Scotia;

? that as the government works toward forming any decisions which could affect coastal resources in Nova Scotia it will implement a transparent and public process allowing for full disclosure of all data upon which the federal and provincial governments? decision is based; and

? that a forum for all affected stakeholders will play a significant role in any decision reached.

Email (please include your postal and email address), or write to:

The Honourable Loyola Hearn, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans
Department of Fisheries & Oceans
200 Kent Street
15th Floor
Ottawa, ON K1A 0E6

(1) Wiber, M. G. and Bull, A., 2006. ?Re-scaling governance for better resource management?? Prepared for the Law and Governance Conference, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology.