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Clearwater at 40: seafood exporter nets 2015 sales of $500 million

A humble storefront lobster business has grown into Canada's largest publicly-funded seafood operation.


Clearwater Seafoods Inc. has something to celebrate as it marks its 40th anniversary.

Indeed, the Halifax-based seafood giant has come a long way since 1976 when the company consisted of two 28-year-old Nova Scotian entrepreneurs with a very limited knowledge of the lobster business.

John Risley, selling real estate during a slump, and his brother-in-law Colin MacDonald, a Dalhousie University graduate with a BSc. degree, decided to try their luck selling the large marine crustaceans, a business that evolved from the back of a pickup truck into a storefront in Bedford, NS.

Their gamble certainly paid off.

Ten years on they were running one of the biggest seafood operations in the world, specializing in lobster and other premium fare such as scallops, clams, cold water shrimp and crabs, all shipped by air freight to international markets. Today, Canada’s largest publicly funded seafood company employs 2,000 people worldwide and hauled in 2015 sales of almost $505 million.

Clearwater has operations in Canada, the US, UK, Europe Asia and Argentina. It runs nine factory vessels that harvest, process and freeze seafood products at sea; and operates eight land-based processing plants plus two distribution facilities.

It sells 85% of its annual 45 million kilogram catch to export markets in more than 40 countries. North America accounts for almost 28% of sales, Europe just over 36% and Asia almost 36%.

The cofounders are wealthy, although an internet search failed to find a net worth for MacDonald; but Canadian Business magazine last year listed Risley’s net worth as $2.35 billion. He lives in a 32,000-square-foot home on 300 acres in Chester, NS.

MacDonald is chairman of the seafood company and executive vice-president and co-owner of Clearwater Fine Foods Inc., the privately-held holding and investment company. It invests in the seafood business and has a stake in Cable and Wireless PLC, a British telecommunications company. Risley is president and CEO.

Last year Clearwater invested $65 million in a 73.4-metre clam vessel, the company’s biggest ship investment in its history.
The Belle Carnell, named after MacDonald’s late mother, harvests Arctic surf, cockle and propeller clams year-round, primarily in the Grand Banks area. The molluscs are automatically shucked and individually quick-frozen within an hour of being harvested using the vessel’s proprietary processing technologies. Products are sold almost exclusively into the international, high-value sushi and sashimi markets.

Last October’s US$132 million acquisition of Macduff Shellfish Group Ltd., a Scottish seafood enterprise, expanded Clearwater’s supply of wild seafood by 20%, most of which is directed to the European market.

Looking ahead, the company says it will continue to invest in its fleet, plants, information systems and people, with innovation continuing to play a key role in harvesting and product development.

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