In her heart of hearts, Georgia Pears believes that oysters can change the world.
“I’ve always known that oysters are magical. They’re older than dinosaurs. Their resiliency is a product of their potency; they’re one of the richest sources of vitamins and minerals of any food on earth, yet not everyone has access to them. I grew up on boats and shucking oysters, so I was used to eating a lot of them as a child. I would always get a burst of energy. But I never really knew why.”
Fast-forward several years later, when the Courtenay-based mother of three was pregnant with her third daughter.
“I wanted to improve my health while pregnant, for myself, my daughters and husband,” Georgia says, who has struggled with a kidney issue related to mineral deficiencies. “I’ve always been particular about the food I eat – choosing sustainable, healthy and local foods — and I’ve always believed in food’s capacity to heal.”
Power of nature
It was this passion for using the power of nature to restore — our bodies and the environment – that set Georgia on her path to find a product that was fully regenerative and aligned so closely with her values.
“I love eating oysters, but I don’t want to eat them every day,” she explains. “I started looking for an oyster supplement (capsules I could take daily or sprinkle into my kids’ smoothies), but I couldn’t find any product in Canada, which is very ironic considering I can walk five minutes to a beach filled with some of the best oysters on earth. There is no product even using North American oysters – most are using oysters from Ireland, Korea or China – and of those companies, none were satisfactorily transparent in terms of their harvesting practices, water quality, or micronutrient levels.
And that’s when Georgia, a trained lawyer specializing in Indigenous and business law, got her small business idea for Mother of Minerals, small-batch dehydrated oyster meat capsules made from regeneratively farmed B.C. oysters.
“I was initially just going to harvest oysters in my garage and sell at the local farmer’s market,” she laughs. “But when I talked with Ben from Forest for Dinner, at The Dock+ food hub in Port Alberni, he put me in touch with Debra (Hellbach) who told me about the program.”
Seafood Accelerator Program
The program Georgia is referring to is the Seafood Business Accelerator (SBA), led by the Centre for Seafood Innovation through Vancouver Island University (VIU). The pilot program is the first of its kind in the province. It debuted in March 2023 and ran through to the first week of May with and ran through to the first week of May with investment from the Trust’s Capital and Innovation Program and in partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture and Food.
Eighteen entrepreneurs took part in the project that targeted small-scale harvesters, like Georgia, who are self-employed fishers and farmers, including wild harvest and farmed fish, shellfish and seaweed harvesters and processors. They participated in a kick-off event at the VIU Deep Bay Marine Field Station, a tour of The Dock+, a B.C. food hub network facility located in Port Alberni (a 2020 investment by the Trust), followed by a series of virtual workshops, webinars and one-on-one coaching with seafood industry experts. They covered everything from marketing and business planning to financial management, research and product development. The final showcase event took place at VIU’s Nanaimo campus to celebrate and acknowledge the innovative work of the participants, while also reinforcing the continued need to support the seafood industry and educate a growing number of consumers.
“We’re producing less than 1% of what we could be in this province, and we are exporting 90% of that 1%,” says Debra Hellbach, Manager of the Centre for Seafood Innovation and the lead mastermind behind the SBA. “Every single participant in this program is working to close that gap.”
Closing the gap in the seafood industry
But closing the gap doesn’t entail one solution. There are multiple factors at play that keep the seafood processing industry – what Debra calls the long, long lost cousin of the agriculture and food sector” — from really taking off. Especially in B.C.
“Consumers today are ripe for education,” says Debra. “In B.C., the seafood sector is saddled with negative public perceptions which I believe contributes to inhibitory regulatory systems, the lack of innovation support aggravates the labour shortage. For instance, it takes years to get a license to farm seaweed. Collectively these manifest in BC’s poor performance when compared to other jurisdictions. British Columbians need to know that in a province with 25, 725 km of coastline, fishing and seafood farming are important. Yet, our regulatory system stifles innovation, encourages consolidation and decimates small-scale fishing and farming. Incredulously, seafood is typically omitted from the discourse surrounding food security! Thankfully this is something First Nations people are well aware of!”
Through the SBA, and in particular the final showcase, small-scale harvesters and processors are provided a platform to raise awareness of what their challenges and opportunities are and how they are addressing these through innovation.
This last point – the lack of innovation support – is most certainly not due to a dearth of ideas. As the first cohort of participants in the SBA clearly demonstrates, there is an abundance of fresh and original entrepreneurial projects coming out of communities from across the region. And there is an even stronger will to get them off the ground. But ideas and determination alone aren’t enough to boost the small-scale seafood industry’s growth in sustainable ways.
“We know that accelerators work both short and long-term and that by increasing output we create jobs,” says Debra who ran her first food accelerator project, Path to Commercialization with the BC Food and Beverage Association, over a decade ago. “With the SBA, we focused on small-scale harvesters, because they are the ones that need help. There are around 2000 (of them) in B.C. who need to innovate. But they don’t know where to start or who to talk to. It’s a dire situation that consistently means that the aquaculture industry underperforms.”
The accelerator program was developed specifically with this urgency and with this industry context in mind. This meant there were a lot of moving parts in the program’s curriculum and its execution, but also a lot of diversity among the participants coming in.
c̓išaaʔatḥ entrepreneur’s mission
Of the 18 entrepreneurs and the 11 distinct communities they represented, five came from First Nations communities, including Natasha Marshall Gallic, a member of the Tseshaht First Nation [c̓išaaʔatḥ] from Port Alberni. Her business, miʕaat Community Supported Fisheries, is the first Indigenous, female-owned Community-supported fishery (CSF) in the world.
“We’re about providing a service and connecting members who moved away with home-grown resources harvested on their territories,” explains Natasha who is also a commercial fisherwoman and [c̓išaaʔatḥ Council Member managing the Nation’s economic development portfolio. “I have an insider’s view of the community gap whereby those who don’t live in the community can still access a traditional resource: fish.”
While miʕaat Community Supported Fisheries is still in its early stages of business development, Sonia Stroebel, one of the 13 accelerator program experts and owner of Skipper Otto, a community-supported fishery supporting Canadian fishing families, is excited and optimistic about Natasha’s prospects.
“It’s been so fascinating mentoring Natasha and we’ve been kicking her idea around for a while,” says Sonia. “In my mind, preserving small-scale industry is preserving a traditional way of life and ensuring fish stays in community. The question then becomes, how can we use the community-supported fishery model to solve for food sovereignty? No one in North America has used it for equitable distribution of Food, Social, and Ceremonial fish. That’s what Natasha’s project is about, and through the program, we are now thinking of ways of doing this as a business-to-business venture by offering a service to band councils who are struggling to get ceremonial fish to their members who live outside of their communities.”
Role of women in seafood industry
For Sonia, who has lengthy experience coaching women in small-scale fisheries and doing social impact work in both Canada and the U.S, working with SBA entrepreneurs like Natasha and Bretton Hills of Ondine Oceanfarm, reflects the valuable role women play in the industry.
“Women have grown up with fishing in the same way as men and have played an essential role for thousands of years,” says Sonia. “Fishing families’ women have done a greater share of the business and administrative side and have done so in very innovative ways. They come to the industry with a different type of problem-solving.”
It was exactly this type of creative, resolution-focused demand that compelled Bretton to become an ocean farmer in the first place.
Creative problem solving
“Creative problem solving is one of the reasons I was OK with how much I had to learn in this industry – whether that be learning to fix a motor, run a chainsaw or manoeuvre a boat. I’ve also always been attracted to the grit and resiliency of farmers,” says Bretton, a first-generation shellfish farmer who started her remote, regenerative farm on Tla’amin and Shishalh territory on the Sunshine Coast in 2019. “I was looking to start something intersecting food security, the lifestyle I wanted, in a place where I could go to work with my 140lb dog, live off the land, and be near the water. I really like being in spaces that feel like edges, like shellfish farming, and I wanted to do things communally, rather than everyone on their own, which just seems like common-sense to me.”
This was not Bretton’s first experience in an accelerator program, and she admittedly joined because she wanted to be mentored by Sonia to whom she was already supplying shellfish through Skipper Otto. Bretton arrived in the program with the dream of building the first seafood processing facility on the Sunshine Coast to help small-scale harvesters, like herself, connect with others, develop new products, and scale up to market.
“In the end, the program really helped me hone my idea. We decided to focus on a small-scale facility for just a few operators, which would allow me to get the experience of supporting a bigger operator like Skipper Otto,” says Bretton. “This was a real lightbulb moment for me; a gamechanger when we decided to not go with a full processing facility. My pie-in-the-sky idea has now become very strict and straight-forward.”
Bretton’s eagerness to build her idea quickly was one of the main similarities — and challenges — common to nearly all program participants.
Structuring business plans
Brady Calancie is one of the two coaches who worked with Debra to create and structure the program as well as prepare templates for each participant’s innovation plan. Brady was paired with seven businesses, including Bretton, to help guide them through their business plans in manageable ways.
“Every business came at it at 110%. To see this type of growth from one week to the next… I haven’t seen this level of growth before. They know how to work hard,” Brady says. “The commonality though always led back to focus – the day-to-day operations need to be taken care of – so we had to scale down ideas into smaller parts and help build those connections with others.”
As with many programs of this type, the exchanges between participants and the relationships built through their time learning together can be, in and of itself, some of the most valuable aspects of the project.
For Victoria Lake, who works at Canadian Seafood Processing Inc in Port Alberni with her partner and owner Mica (and who are anchor tenants at The Dock+), their participation has allowed both themselves and other participants to expand their market potential.
“I had no idea what to expect going in, but as soon as I saw Debra’s name associated with the program, I knew I wanted to be a part,” says Victoria who has known Debra for the past three years. “We wanted to make and replicate an Oyster Rockefeller, and now, thanks to working with Ellie Scott (one of the SBA experts) we truly have a recipe that we can test and see where it goes. We also talked a lot with Georgia about her capsules idea and immediately fell in love with it… we’re looking at how we can take our own pre- or post-shucked oysters or ugly oysters and she can use them in innovative ways.”
Second accelerator in the works
Moving forward, the Seafood Business Accelerator has plans to launch a second program in the fall 2023 (funding permitting). And this time round, a few changes will be made including a longer program that won’t encroach upon harvesting seasons, allow more time for participants to work with experts, and leverage the success of past participants.
“Our May 4th showcase event was really geared to demonstrate how the Centre for Seafood Innovation could help small-scale seafood entrepreneurs capture more value for their harvest. We wanted people to have a better understanding and appreciation of the value of innovation support” says Debra. “In the future we will invite SBA participants and graduates to get involved in applied research and public education projects. For instance, they can feature their projects and products at the Centre for Seafood Innovation’s Let’s Talk Seafood… and Eat It Too series. We’ll also have more students involved (across multiple disciplines) so that they leave with different perceptions of seafood, job opportunities and become champions for the sector out in their own worlds.”
For a coastal region blessed with bountiful supplies of seafood and some of the best natural conditions for fishing and aquaculture production in the world, it only makes sense to seize the opportunities latent in the industry – whether that be from an economic, social and even cultural perspective.
As Georgia says, “it’s like not being able to get orange juice in a backyard filled with oranges.”
And after taking part in the accelerator program, one might add it’s not just about making “orange juice” – whether that be an oyster capsule, access to ceremonial fish, a food processing facility, or even a recipe for Oyster Rockefeller. It’s also about building up an industry and valuing its harvests through connection, collaboration, innovation, good planning, and a whole lot of grit.
Island Coastal Economic Trust is honoured to have been working in close partnership with the Centre for Seafood Innovation project on the Seafood Business Accelerator program valued at over $186,000. The Trust contributed $60,000 to the overall budget.