Qikiqtarjuaq shellfish business clamming up

Inspect the mollusks or no licence, feds say



Qikiqtarjuaq clam divers are out of work until the Department of Fisheries and Oceans re-issues an experimental fishing licence, currently on hold because of food safety concerns.

DFO suspended the Qikiqtarjuaq Diving Group’s (QDG) clam harvesting licence in April because the clams haven’t undergone testing by the Canadian Sanitation Shellfish Program (CSSP).

There are no CSSP testing facilities in Nunavut. The closest facility is in Nunavik and operated by Makivik Corp. But that business is encountering its own problems, specifically a bottleneck in processing seal blubber for nutritional supplements.

Diving is on hold in Qikiqtarjuaq until at least August while a test site is located. The suspension means the popular clams will be absent from stores in the coming months.

The delay is a financial blow for divers who have invested thousands of dollars and hours into the business.

They harvest about 50,000 kilograms of the deep-water clams 10 kilometres outside of Qikiqtarjuaq each year. It’s a $500,000 business employing 10 people in a community with high unemployment.

“We were told as long as we don’t export them out of Nunavut we don’t have to worry about all those regulations,” said a source in Qikiqtarjuaq who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

QDG has harvested and sold thousands of kilograms of uninspected clams in the past five years. No one has become sick from eating the saltwater mollusks, the company maintains.

Divers understand the need for clam testing. What baffles them is DFO’s change of heart after five years of essentially turning a blind eye.

“We understand if DFO issues a licence and somebody dies from bad clams they could get sued because they issued a licence when there wasn’t a sampling program in place,” the source said.

Karen Ditz, a fisheries management biologist with DFO, agreed the federal department would be liable in such a situation.

If the divers are Nunavut beneficiaries, the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement protects their right to harvest and sell the clams within Nunavut, she said.

However, if the clams are to be exported out of the territory – a long-term goal – the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), a branch of CSSP, and the Nunavut department of sustainable development must work together.

“The CFIA and the Nunavut government are trying to come up with a protocol that ensures harvested clams are safe for consumption. That’s not within our mandate. When they come up with the protocol, we’ll come up with the licence,” Ditz said.

CFIA has a temporary solution on the table. CFIA will test portions of clams in a southern lab. In return, QDG must agree not to sell the clams unless testing deems them to be safe.

If all goes well, the divers could be back in business by August.

“The shellfish diving industry could continue to develop and the product could be sold and consumed safely within Nunavut,” wrote Dr. Brian Evans, assistant vice-president of programs for CFIA in a letter to QDG co-owner Morris Kuniliusie.

However, storage space is a concern. “We don’t have enough freezer space to stockpile all the clams while they go through their testing protocol,” said Don Pickle, Qikiqtarjuaq’s senior administrative officer.

Building a sanitation screening facility in Nunavut would solve the testing and storage problems, but create a financial one.

“While the Government of Nunavut is not prepared to take responsibility for a shellfish monitoring program it does fully support the continued development of the clam fishery in Qikiqtarjuaq,” Rosemary Keenainak, deputy minister of the department of sustainable development, wrote in a May 28 letter to Evans.

DSD officials were scheduled to sit down with CFIA representatives in Iqaluit on June 13.

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