Written by Joshua Smee (WeavEast Fellow, Newfoundland and Labrador)
When we think about investments, we usually think in dollar signs. St. Anthony Basin Resources Inc. (SABRI), on Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula, thinks in metric tonnes. They’re a social enterprise whose core operating revenue comes from a 3000 tonne shrimp quota, and they’ve built something pretty special in their remote community, which sits about 30 minutes drive from the Viking sites at L’Anse aux Meadows.
In the wake of the Newfoundland and Labrador cod fishery’s devastating collapse, culminating in the 1992 moratorium, the province’s fishing industry has retooled; shrimp and crab are now the highest-value products being landed. In most places, fishers are selling their catch to private processing businesses - but not in St. Anthony. There, SABRI was established as a nonprofit organization in 1997, with a board made up of fishers, plant employees, community representatives, and economic development staff.
What followed was a great story of community-led success. SABRI partnered with Clearwater (a private fish-processing business) to build a state-of-the art shrimp and crab plant that greatly expanded their sales opportunities; they have since made major investments in port infrastructure, including building a state-of-the-art cold storage plant. As they built their business, they leveraged that revenue to build their community development work. Over the years, SABRI has taken on an oral history initiative, built community trails and tourist infrastructure, invested in broadband internet, partnered with Memorial University to research opportunities for fisheries waste products and provided numerous scholarships for local students headed to post-secondary education. For all this they have been recognized many times, most recently (just a few weeks ago) winning he Economic Development Association of NL (EDANL)'s Economic Development Award of Excellence for community projects with communities under 3,000 people.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for SABRI, of course. With their core “funding” being a shrimp quota, they are vulnerable to ecological, economic, and policy shifts in the fishing space. In 2016, for example, the repeal of the “last-in, first out” policy in the shrimp fishery and the need for across-the-board quota reductions to preserve shrimp stocks meant that SABRI’s allocation plunged - in 2018/19 it is less than 400 tonnes. This makes diversification in business lines all the more important, and SABRI is currently developing a cellular service pilot, converting a former school into housing, exploring medical uses for blue mussels (which have potential to combat obesity and diabetes, major issues in Newfoundland and Labrador), and supporting the small boat fishery with a huge range of initiatives.
“We’re constantly looking at projects that build infrastructure that other businesses can capitalize and grow from, whether that’s trails to support the local tourism sector, cell service to support the whole community, or work to build up our port. It’s a way of turning a quota allocation into a sustainable legacy” says Sam Elliot, Executive Director of SABRI.
So what lessons can we take from the SABRI story? First, that there is a huge opportunity for innovation in how community development work is resourced. Instead of being reliant on ever-unpredictable government grants, SABRI was empowered to manage what is, in effect, an endowment fund - albeit one made up of sea creatures. This gave the community much more control over its own destiny than a cash subsidy ever would have, and the result was a much larger share of the benefits staying in that community. There are also lessons here about partnerships with the private sector. Social enterprises in small communities often face pushback from businesses who see them as subsidized competition; in St. Anthony the conversation moved past competition and towards partnership, with SABRI leveraging the experience and resources of Clearwater to build projects together. Just think of how many other communities could take this approach, with a partnership that adds community benefit to private investment.
The SABRI story is still evolving, and it is one that all of Atlantic Canada should watch.
Joshua Smee, WeavEast Fellow