From Sea to Plate
Upcoming BC Shellfish & Seafood Festival aims to educate locals and visitors about the ocean’s bounty
The sun is rising over the Coast Mountains as Richard Hardy steps from the dock at the Comox Marina into a flat-bottomed boat. While other farmers in the Comox Valley may be heading out to milk cows or gather eggs, Hardy and his small crew are travelling across the water to a bay near Sandy Island. Here, in the crystal clear inter-tidal waters near Comox, is a 27.5-hectare oyster farm. It is one of seven similar operations totaling 64.3 hectares of ‘off-bottom and sub-tidal tenure’ managed by Pentlach Seafoods LP, a sustainable aquaculture corporation owned by the K’omoks First Nation.
Hardy, whose First Nation’s name is ‘Namugwis’ and means ‘only one on the beach’ is a proud member of the K’omoks Band and President of Pentlach Seafoods. Committed to not only farming oysters but to growing the local economy, Hardy also serves as President on the Comox Valley Economic Development Society’s (CVEDS) Board of Directors.
Hardy comes by his interest in aquaculture honestly. His people have been involved in shellfish harvest for millennium. After working more than a decade in the forestry industry, he was called to move from the forest to the sea, to follow the footsteps of his ancestors. They would be proud of what he and this Island-grown enterprise have managed to achieve in the last decade.
In 2004, Hardy and about 30 other members of the K’omoks First Nation were trained in aquaculture techniques and collectively launched Pentlach Seafoods. During its first 10-years of operation, the company has generated more than $5.5 million in revenues from the sustainable planting and harvest of millions of farmed (not wild) clams and oysters.
They have paid more than $3 million in wages to local people, the vast majority of whom are not K’omoks Band members. Their trademarked Komo Gway manila clams and oysters are now enjoyed in homes and restaurants locally, as well as at some of the top eateries in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto. They are also distributed to various Sobey’s (Thrifty Foods) grocery stores in BC, Alberta, and Ontario.
In January 2013, the K’omoks First Nation expanded their aquaculture investment with the purchase of a federally registered seafood processing plant called Aquatec Seafoods. They renamed it Salish Sea Foods LP, after the body of water formerly known as the Georgia Strait and now officially called the Salish Sea.
In their first full year of operation, Salish Sea Foods increased their staff from 12 to 25, and almost tripled annual sales from $1.2 million to $3.2 million. If all goes according to plan, in the coming years the K’omoks Band ocean enterprises will expand to culturing geoducks and sea cucumbers, through a third company, Salish Sea Farms. They have applied for government approval and, once received, plan to invest $10 million in the project.
Hardy says that sea cucumbers and geoducks are a highly sought after international trade item, and it is not unrealistic to anticipate annual revenues in excess of $50 million. Salish Sea Farms could also potentially generate an additional $100 million from indirect revenues that would benefit people locally, provincially and nationally.
Hardy is quick to point out that the K’omoks First Nation aquaculture holdings are used in this story as an example, to give readers a general idea of the economic impact of the industry as a whole.
The K’omoks Band activities represent only a small portion of the vibrant and ever-expanding multi-million dollar shellfish and fishing operations in the waters around the Comox Valley. It is an industry that is often overlooked and occasionally criticized by those who do not fully understand the long-term benefits of managing the sea through sustainable farming practices, as opposed to only harvesting (and potentially depleting) wild stocks.
While the industry does have its antagonists, it also has many advocates. Chef Ronald St. Pierre and his wife, Patricia St. Pierre, owners of Locals Restaurant at the Old House Village Hotel in Courtenay, are two of its biggest champions. They steadfastly believe that the aquaculture industry is something to celebrate, and that public education is key to its future success.
“It is imperative that people understand how the industry works and how important it is to the local economy and the ocean’s ecosystem,” says St. Pierre. At Locals, the St. Pierre’s pride in home grown seafood is reflected in the fact that about 50 per cent of their menu features food harvested from the Salish Sea. Quebec-born St. Pierre says he feels truly blessed to have such an abundance of fresh shellfish and fish to feature on his restaurant menu. He is always dreaming of new and exciting ways to prepare it for his patrons.
“The Comox Valley truly is the land—and sea—of plenty and the people who live here need to appreciate that the aquaculture industry is not only growing but that it is sustainable,” explains St. Pierre.
“And we all know that this community can certainly benefit from more growth. We have to consider produce from the sea with the same pride as we do food that is grown on the land. The potential for long-term benefits from aquaculture is huge. I feel blessed, as a chef, to live and work in this kind of environment, where we have such variety of quality fresh oysters, clams, scallops, prawns, crab and a wide variety of fish available to us on a daily basis, year round.”
Roberta Stevenson, executive director of the BC Shellfish Growers Association, agrees.
“A public education and marketing program was needed to improve the community’s perception of local seafood,” she says. “We needed to promote this century-old industry and tell the story of how shellfish farmers lease areas of the ocean to sustainably grow shellfish for world-wide distribution.
“People need to understand the health benefits of eating seafood; that these products are completely natural, with no growth hormones or antibiotics; and that sustainable sea farming practices do not deplete local wild stocks.
“Getting the word out about all the good things about this industry was a challenge because the shellfish farmers are always busy farming; they don’t have time to do a lot of marketing,” Stevenson adds.
“As a result, the BC Shellfish Growers’ Association was formed in 1950. Nine years ago, the idea for a Shellfish Festival was conceived.”
St. Pierre, chair of the Board for the North Vancouver Island Chefs’ Association, believes it is imperative that Island restaurants not only feature fresh local seafood but that they work collaboratively with industry to educate the public about the important role that the aquaculture industry plays in supporting the local economy. That is why he, and fellow members of the Chef’s Association, put their support behind the Shellfish Festival since the event’s inception in 2006.
Celebrating its ninth year this June, the popular festival has grown from a two-day event to a 10-day extravaganza, making it the largest festival of its kind in British Columbia. With the BC Salmon Farmers Association and the Pacific Halibut Management Association coming on board, it has also grown from being a celebration of everything shellfish to now encompassing shellfish and seafood.
That first year, Stevenson says she had to work hard to engage the community as both attendees and event sponsors were hard to find. Several chefs did agree to participate, and a couple of hundred people bought tickets to the inaugural Friday night shellfish feast.
Fast forward to 2015, and the coveted 225 tickets to what is now an upscale gala evening of fine dining featuring local and celebrity chefs sells out in a matter of hours.
“By the fifth year, the Shellfish Festival had evolved into a big event that attracted more than 2,000 people,” recalls Stevenson. “I no longer had to beg for support and ask my friends and relatives to buy tickets. We knew that we were onto something big when, at the Saturday shellfish sampling event at the Comox Marina Park, we had more than a thousand people wandering the grounds and enjoying the samples. Then, we looked up and saw a couple of large tour buses from Vancouver pull up and several dozen Asian tourists stepped out to join us!”
By the seventh year, the event had grown larger than what could be managed by the small, largely volunteer-run, BC Shellfish Association. On behalf of her membership, Stevenson asked CVEDS to come onboard, to provide the financial and human resources required to take the event to the next level. While the Association is still involved and retains management of the signature Friday night gala, support from CVEDS has been instrumental to the Festival’s ongoing success.
“For the past two years, the BC Shellfish and Seafood Festival, has attracted hundreds of tourists, putting heads in beds and people in restaurants,” says Stevenson. “It is now one of the busiest 10 days of the year for local restaurants—most of which feature fish and seafood specials on their daily fresh sheets. This year, with the newly expanded list of events and activities, more than 5,000 people are expected to participate.”
The 2015 BC Shellfish and Seafood Festival kicks off Friday, June 12 with ‘Fresh Fest’ at Comox Marina Park. Other events over the next 10 days vary from hands-on mornings learning how to forage for wild ocean edibles, to a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea-themed dinner, a Mott’s Clamato ‘Best Caesar in Town’ bartending competition, to salmon farm, geoduck hatchery, and deep water and oyster beach tours. There is an evening of ‘Oyster Fun for Oyster Lovers’, and an extravaganza where lobsters from the East Coast will be flown in.
On Friday, June 19, the 9th Annual Chefs Gala Dinner will feature the culinary masterpieces of several world-class chefs from across British Columbia. Hosted in the historic Filberg Heritage Lodge and Park, this decadent dining event begins with a raw oyster bar reception, sampling oysters of different regions of BC, shucked and served by the farmers who grew them. Guests will enjoy a sit-down six-course dinner, with each course created by a different BC Chef and expertly paired with a BC wine or craft beer.
Unfortunately, the Gala Dinner is sold out, but there are still other new and exciting events to attend. There’s the ‘Casino Royal and Seafood Feast’ at the Old House Hotel & Spa, ‘I’d Like to Be Under The Sea Wine Maker’s Dinner’ at Blue Moon Winery, and the ‘Comox By the Sea Celebration’ at Filberg Heritage Lodge and Park.
A real highlight for seafood and aquaculture suppliers, processors, growers and producers from the Pacific Northwest is the 1st Annual BC Seafood Expo and Workshop Series, June 13 and 14. The public is welcome to attend all or part of the Expo, to hear a number of keynote speakers address some of the issues and concerns that people may have. The Expo will also provide the aquaculture industry with an opportunity to network and share expertise, while doing business with buyers, industry innovators, and international trade representatives.
In summary, Hardy says that the BC Seafood and Shellfish Festival in general, and the Expo in particular, provide an opportunity for people in the Comox Valley and beyond to come together to better understand how the aquaculture industry has grown to become a sustainable, profitable and international success story. Without a doubt, we have something to celebrate!
For more information visit discovercomoxvalley.com/shellfish-festival-info