Two men, one Indigenous and the other of European descent, stand in front of the ocean.

Paul Muskee on Klahoose Aquaculture & QXMC

Paul Muskee has been working for QXMC for close to 15 years and for the last decade has been with Klahoose Aquaculture.

“I feel like my life has led me this way. When I was younger, I did work in aquaculture and I did work in forestry. I was also a mining technologist for a bunch of years, but I grew up  around Powell River, Lund and Desolation Sound.  Running boats has always been part of what I’ve done. I’ve loved working for Klahoose. They’ve been a great employer and I really like the people I’ve work with,” he explained.  

Harvest time at Squirrel Cove – courtesy QXMC

“I started working in their forestry department. I was out in the bush, helping to engineer blocks, plan roads and timber cruising. When the Jimmy Creek project happened,  the development corporation picked up a bunch of pieces of that: running the 220 man camp; fuel supply for the project, barging.” 

That’s when I got pulled out of the bush and into the office. I’ve been helping to organize things ever since.” 

“I was also involved with our first tourism initiative, which was Grizzly Bear Tours in Toba Inlet which has now grown into the Klahoose Wilderness Resort and Klahoose Gorge Harbour.”

CC: When did QXMC come into being?

PM: “It was before my time. I see the incorporation date, 2007. It was probably set up under Chief Ken Brown. I  believe the development Corp was formed around the same time Klahoose was engaging with the Power Companies in Toba Inlet.” 

CC: How did you become involved in Klahoose Aquaculture?

PM: “Before my time, Klahoose had already embarked on acquiring aquaculture tenures and geoduck aquaculture, which was actually quite an innovative step because  geoduck aquaculture is quite a new thing, still is. There’s a lot of unknowns to it, and that was one of the things that I was asked to continue pursuing once I was working in administration.”

“Geoducks take about seven years to grow. A lot of things can happen in that time. It’s all underwater aquaculture, so you can’t closely monitor your stock on a day to day basis.”

“We tried to draw on the advice and the knowledge of others that have done it. We tried to improve that and we still don’t know exactly how successful we’ll be because those plantings from six years ago are still on the bottom. We tried to give the seed every chance at health, so we boosted their growth inside Squirrel Cove, in baskets of sand, before planting them out in the deep.”

CC: Where is the principal market? 

PM: China: when we harvest geoducks, sometimes the divers will finish diving around 2:00 PM, and by that night those geoducks will already be on a plane to China. Everything has to move quickly. It takes a lot of coordination to meet boats, to meet trucks, to meet processing plants, and out to the airport. Ideally they can drop the geoducks in a live tank”

CC: A lot of Chinese people like to see the seafood alive.

PM: “Yes, the live market is the big one.”

“Aside from the beach tenures, which naturally grow clams and oysters, the one species that Klahoose was actively cultivating when I got involved was geoduck. I think they had one of the first tenures just around the corner from the village, along the coast. As soon as you round the point going south for about two kilometres is the license. We recently acquired a seaweed license to grow seaweed over top of the geoduck. We haven’t started doing that yet, but we wanted that option of a polyculture.”

“Seaweed is another thing which we’re pretty excited about. It’s also a very new thing and definitely a startup industry with all the challenges of trying to figure out what’s going to work. We have  three active tenures right now,  in Gorge Harbor, Squirrel Cove, and  below that big cliff on West Redonda. Those are the three sites that we’re actively cultivating seaweed right now – and the polyculture license.”

“The government had a hard time knowing how to legislate and manage it all because it was so new – ‘what kind of licenses to issue and how long licenses should be good for’ – so it’s been a lot of red tape, but we’ve been successful with that.”

“We’re partnered with Cascadia Seaweed. There’s too much science, technology, and also market development – way more than anything Klahoose shellfish could take on. So  we feel our best entry into the market is to partner with Cascadia. We support them, lease them space, provide Klahoose labor and just wish them well as they’re trying to get off the ground with a startup, which is  very challenging. We’ve seen Cascadia already transition from focusing on food, like  making chips and things, to cattle feed and bio stimulants, so liquid fertilizer.  That seems to be their focus now.”

“Looking at  the coastline and how good it is for the environment, it just seems like a win-win-win Industry to be in.  The challenge is just finding a market niche for the product. We  only grow native species  of seaweed.  They’ve been growing  mostly sugar kelp (saccharina) in our tenures.”

“We have a wealth of areas: Squirrel Cove, West Redonda. Most recently we acquired Talbot Cove (on West Redonda) from the Cortes Island Shellfish Co-op, which had disbanded but we had to do a really extensive cleanup on it with divers and ROVs (remotely operated vehicles), and we had a barge there for a couple of months to acquire the debris. So it was a pretty involved cleanup.” 

“We have an abundance of Manila Clams and oysters,  probably  more product than we have harvesters to harvest. Cortes is a rich area for aquaculture, shellfish grow like they’re on steroids.”

“We’re really excited about the scallops. They’re growing well and  they’re a higher market price than clams and oysters, which are, in my opinion, undervalued. We just started our first harvest after 2 years.” 

“We move the scallops from small size to different nets as they grow, and  different ways of growing them: sea trays, lantern nets. We start their life cycle  in the rafts inside Squirrel Cove. That’s great for us, because obviously it doesn’t take long for people to get to work. It’s just right next to the village, a two minute boat ride from the dock to the rafts. For their final growth, we move them out to Talbot Cove. It’s a little bit deeper.  Also, Squirrel Cove has a seasonal closure because of all the boat traffic. It’s closed from  May 31st to September 30. We wouldn’t be able to harvest our final product if it was still there.”

CC: Where is your market for scallops, oysters and clams?

PM: “We’ve tried to pass local buyers and get to the buyers in Vancouver, to get a better price for our product. All the buyers that we deal with are Asian down in Richmond, in the plants. Sometimes we get insights into where the product is going from them, but they’re ultimately the distributors.  We don’t reach the end market. Sometimes the buyers will talk to us about this person or that customer has such and such a requirement, but I don’t feel like we have a great handle on whose table they end up on. China is still a big market. I think the clams are exported. I’m not sure where our oysters are going.”

CC: How many people are there working in Klahoose Aquaculture.  

PM: “We probably employ about 20 different people between Klahoose and Islanders. It’s not full time. There’s  seasons when we’re planting; when we’re harvesting; or when we’re quiet.” 

“We actually have more work than we have people to fill those positions right now. I guess not everyone’s cut out for that in the winter. The low tides are at night. So that’s a different ball of wax.  not everyone is prepared to do the winter. Of course, when you’re doing beach harvesting, the tides are better in spring and summer.”

CC: Where should someone go to find employment? 

PM: “Klahoose members or Islanders can always approach Erik Lyon and his team from Rising Tide Shellfish. He’s always looking for more good people.” 

“We’ve actually created more jobs than we have people to fill them.  In addition to Klahoose jobs, we’ve been able to employ  quite a few Cortesians on the operations.”

“I think Klahoose shellfish is going to be in a good position in the future because you see constant closures from urbanization in a lot of the other areas, like Baynes Sound.”

“The waters around Cortes are still so pristine with lots of current, lots of movement, for shellfish to grow. In the future, all these tenures are only going to become more valuable for Klahoose shellfish.”  

“The prices have to come up. Right now aquaculturists have to put a lot of hours in, but as prices come up,  more and more could be invested  and that could be a lot more growth.”

“I do see a real future for Cortes aquaculture and producing food. It’s a very rich growing area, the speed at which shellfish grow is amazing. We would fill these baskets with sand and hang them from the rafts to boost the geoduck growth, but when we pulled them up they were so full of every kind of shellfish. There would be all kinds of clams that had self seeded and just in one summer.”

“I’m really wishing Cascadia,  or whatever companies push seaweed, find a really good market because seaweed is so good for everything and it grows so fast. We plant in December and harvest in March. That’s time to grow from ‘nothing’ to tons and tons, in three months. That market just needs to be developed.” 

Top photo credit: Paul Muskee (on the right) – Photo courtesy QXMC

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