Dollars under the waves
Qikiqtarjuaq residents are proud of their juicy clams
QIKIQTARJUAQ — Looking like an alien newly landed on the surface of a planet covered in snow, 50-year-old Davidee Kooneeliusie prepares to slip into a small hole hacked into the ice.
He is outfitted in a black dry suit that he’s been helped into by other divers and as he pads along in his flippers he trails a clump of wires behind him.
Kooneeliusie is one of eight divers upgrading their skills so they can safely and efficiently collect clams from the ocean floor. The ocean floor under the waters around Qikiqtarjuaq, or Broughton Island, are teeming with the white shellfish and in a community with nearly 90 per cent unemployment, clam harvesting could be a real economic boom.
The clams are similar in size and texture to geoduck clams, widely popular in the Asian market. A 1997 study estimated there were about 34,000 tonnes of clams in the area, which could translate in about $900 million for the community.
The dive site itself is about a 10-minute drive by snow machine outside of town. With the legally required red and white dive flag flapping from a pole in the ice, it is easy to spot.
Two wooden shacks built by the dive group sit side-by-side. Outside the one with a row of colourful flippers hanging on it is a rectangular hole, there are thin sheets of ice starting to form at the surface.
Before donning dive gear and heading out into the -30 C weather Kooneeliusie and others get their equipment ready in the second dive shack they have dragged out to the site behind snow machines a day earlier.
The shack is warm, thanks to a kerosene heater, and a propane stove is heating water for tea.
The man in charge at the site is Michel Tessier, the Nunavut operations manager of Commercial Diving Group, based in Vancouver. He has been hired to help the divers achieve their restricted occupational diving licenses. The hope is that within about three years he will train himself out of a job.
“They dive with a compressor,” he explains, pointing through one of the shack’s two windows to a machine stationed beside the shack and attached with hoses. More hoses hang coiled on the wall of the shack, in what appears to be a mish-mash of colours.
Tessier explains that the grey hose is for communications wire, allowing the diver the speak with the team on the surface, while the yellow one holds the air and the red one is a depth wire.
With two shacks, he says, four divers can be in each, with two people collecting clams, one working the communications box and monitoring the equipment, and one coiling and uncoiling the hose as need be.
Kooneeliusie has been diving for seven years. Speaking through an interpreter, he says he used to be a heavy equipment operator and remembers when men would go out in boats years ago with long poles to prod the ocean floor to harvest clams.
Until now, harvesters would scuba-dive to the ocean floor, maybe 25 or 30 feet, to get the clams, but this course teaches them to dive more safely with the compressor. If there’s a problem with the hose a switch can be flicked at the surface and the diver has an emergency supply of air — plenty to get him back to the surface.
“It’s so beautiful down there,” Kooneeliusie says. “It’s everything you haven’t seen before on the surface that’s on the bottom — starfish, shells, clams.”
Sammy Qappik, 28, started diving in 2000. He was a bylaw officer in town until he quit in December.
“Diving is more interesting than bylaw,” he says, smiling. He explains they need 20 hours of dive time to get their restricted license, and he loves every minute.
“The bottom part is kind of rocky. We can see to that island, though,” he says pointing to a landmass about 200 metres away. “It’s as clear as the tropics.”
He explains that on the bottom they can’t see the clams, but they can see their holes.
“We have to clear the sand off of them first with our hands underneath the water until the clam shows up.”
The clams are collected in a bag they wear on their backs and he says divers can easily collect 500 at a time. The divers need a harvesting licence from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, who also set their quota, and they sell the clams through their hunters and trappers association.
Tia Nukiwuak is Qikiqtarjuaq’s community economic development officer. She says two years ago four people were scuba-certified through a program funded mostly through the Kakivak Association. But that wasn’t nearly enough people needed to harvest the number of clams the community hopes to export.
Eight divers then joined those four for this year’s restricted occupational diving course, again funded mostly by Kakivak and the Department of Sustainable Development. That number settled to its present 10 — which is great for the community, she says.
“It means harvest for the community, access to clams which are part of their cultural diet,” she says. “And it’s the self-esteem and pride it generates as Inuit organizations help themselves to be self-reliant and self-sustaining over a long period of time.”
Kooneeliusie used to live in Pangnirtung and says Qikiqtarjuaq clams are in a league of their own. Because the tide doesn’t fall low enough to reveal the mud flats where the clams live in Qikiqtarjuaq, they grow larger and tastier.
“These ones are much fatter, more meat,” he says. “When you boil them the meat doesn’t shrink like the ones from Pangnirtung.”