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The winners of a historic but controversial bidding process launched by the federal government to give Indigenous bands access to a lucrative Atlantic Canadian clam fishery are not able to buy the boat they need to start harvesting.

Despite not having a fishing vessel, the Five Nations Clam Company, a consortium of Indigenous bands from Quebec and the Eastern provinces, recently beat six other contenders for rights to fish a quarter of the total allowable Arctic surf clams – orange, tongue-like and worth millions of dollars – as part of a federal reconciliation effort.

Chief Aaren Sock of New Brunswick’s Elsipogtog First Nation, which leads the consortium, told The Globe and Mail in an e-mailed statement that “the purchase of a vessel can only be finalized once the license is issued” by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

But the fishing season is half over and a licence has yet to be issued, said Mr. Sock, who told The Globe that he learned in January that Five Nations had won the bid. The official announcement was made in February and has been so controversial that the courts and federal Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion are involved.

Mr. Dion is investigating Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc’s decision to award the clam rights to Five Nations and its commercial partner Premium Seafoods owing to connections that include the brother of a sitting Liberal MP, a former Liberal MP and the first cousin of Mr. LeBlanc’s wife.

A court challenge launched by one of the losing bidders unlocked a slew of internal ministerial documents that revealed Mr. LeBlanc selected Five Nations as the winner despite the fact that it had the lowest proportion of Indigenous ownership of any bidder, listed several Indigenous partners as “TBD” at the time the bid was submitted and had no fishing vessel. The group’s proposal had outlined plans to lease a U.S.-owned boat for $1-million for its first year of fishing, but no formal deal was in place with the owner. However, that boat did not have the capacity to process and freeze the clams at sea, which is crucial to preserve quality of surf clams, primarily sold into the Japanese sushi market.

Until now, Clearwater Seafoods of Nova Scotia has been the sole Canadian supplier to the market and held all of this country’s quota, acquired over a period of years through government-approved purchases.

Mr. LeBlanc’s decision to reduce Clearwater’s quota without payment and award it to an Indigenous group is historic and rattled the seafood market. While quotas are sometimes redistributed, it is usually through a buy-and-sell transaction that enables the original holders to retain their value. That includes when government is involved in brokering a transfer to Indigenous entities.

Mr. Sock said that although “timelines have been impacted” by the licensing lag, “we have not withdrawn our application and we fully expect the government … to fulfill its commitment in issuing the license … in the near future.” He did not speculate on reasons for the lag.

Vance Chow, a spokesman for the DFO, said in a statement that the government remains committed to introducing Indigenous participation to the fishery. “The licensing process is underway,” he wrote. Mr. Chow did not respond to a question on when that might be.

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