fish that rarely feeds British Columbians – they are exported

By Marc Fawcett-Atkinson, Canada’s National Observer, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

James Lawson catches fish. Fish that rarely feeds the B.C. coast. 

He’s not alone: Roughly 85 per cent of seafood caught in the province is exported, yet B.C. fish harvesters can’t get their catch to local markets — and the provincial government is doing little to change that in its plans to increase food security post-pandemic.

Government ignoring fishing

“If the province’s goals are to get people working, to grow businesses, and create stronger communities, they’re missing the mark on all three goals if they don’t include (fishing)” said Lawson, who is Heiltsuk and works in B.C.’s salmon, groundfish, and dive fisheries

“If you ignore fishing, you’re ignoring First Nation and other coastal communities, because that’s a huge traditional job in those areas.”

Last week, the province released its mid-pandemic economic restart plan, committing about $25 million to increasing B.C.’s food security. None of that money is earmarked to make local seafood more available, despite the province’s extensive coastline and fishing economy.

85% of the catch exported

There are about 4,000 fish harvesters scattered across the province who harvested about 196,000 tonnes of wild seafood in 2018, worth $476 million — everything from salmon to crab to geoducks.

Most of that seafood didn’t stay in Canada.

The province exports all but about 15 per cent of its annual catch each year and, like most of Canada, imports between 70 and 90 per cent of the seafood British Columbians eat, according to federal data.

Access to local food

“We should not be in a position where all our fish is being exported,” said Tasha Sutcliffe, a fisheries policy adviser for Ecotrust Canada, a non-profit that supports rural B.C. communities’ and First Nations’ economic development.

“(We need to make) sure we have access to good, safe, local food so we’re not just relying on imports for safety reasons, and for quality and access to volume reasons.”

But making B.C. seafood more available is more complicated than it sounds.

Licensing Policies

The licensing policies that give fish harvesters the right to fish the B.C. coast have privatized access to seafood and put them on the open market. It’s a system that has successfully mitigated the fisheries’ ecological impact, but has allowed non-fishermen, including Canadian and foreign investors, to control when B.C. fish is caught, who catches it — and where it’s sold.

“There are no real controls around licence and quota ownership to ensure that access to the fishery stays in adjacent communities and First Nations. We’ve known that for years now, and COVID basically shone a spotlight on that issue,” Sutcliffe said.

Most fisheries in B.C. are managed with two interlocked regulatory tools: licences and individual transferrable quotas.

Licences are purchased from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and give a fish harvester the right to fish; individual transferrable quotas determine the volume of fish that a harvester can catch and are used by the agency to limit the total volume of fish killed. Depending on the fishery, these can be worth millions.

B.C. is unique in Canada in that there are currently no limitations on who can purchase licences and quotas for West Coast fisheries (different rules on the East Coast tightly regulate licences and quota ownership there), so most belong to investors, corporations, or retired fishermen — not the people with their boots on deck.

Licensed to export fish

Instead, most active fish harvesters in B.C. — particularly young fish harvesters like Lawson — rent the right to fish from licence and quota owners. These lease fees can be steep, topping out at around 80 per cent of their catch’s estimated value. And because the fish doesn’t “belong” to them, fish harvesters can’t decide when they fish or where the fish they catch is sold. 

Including during the pandemic: In the six months since COVID-19 struck, some harvesters who wanted to sell more fish locally couldn’t because the owner of their licences wanted to sell the catch to international markets to maximize their profits, Sutcliffe said.

Profits that didn’t necessarily help harvesters or coastal communities.

“We have this corporate control of fisheries, and that means a number of our fisheries still have (most) of our fish being sent out of B.C. and out of Canada,” Sutcliffe said.

Cannot sell in BC

Not only does that erode the province’s ability to feed itself with B.C. fish, she noted, but most fish is exported unprocessed, eliminating job opportunities in fish processing plants and fetching a lower price for harvesters.

“You end up with harvesters getting penalized by price, Canadians and British Columbians get penalized by the lack of access to local food, and there’s a huge amount of waste because many millions of pounds of fish can be wasted as the companies (that own the licences) are willing to lose volume because they can make up the difference with a favourable exchange rate.”

Nor is this problem new. A 2019 report by the federal Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans reviewing B.C. fisheries’ social and economic well-being noted that “West Coast commercial fisheries fall short … in how they benefit active (fish harvesters) and their coastal communities” because of the licensing and quota system, and federal fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan acknowledged the system needs to be reviewed earlier this year.     

For instance, when the pandemic hit, many fishermen tried to organize systems to provide fish for their communities. Those efforts were often hindered because the harvesters needed to rely on leased licences. 

“Individual harvesters who aren’t independent (licence holders) don’t have control of their own fishery, so they can’t adapt and innovate quickly the way they need to in a time like this because they’re beholden to owners,” Sutcliffe said. 

BC has a role to play

Still, change is possible — and the provincial government has a role to play, even if fishing quotas and licences fall primarily under federal jurisdiction, she said.

A September letter to Lana Popham, the former B.C. minister of agriculture, penned by Sutcliffe and Ecotrust Canada, noted that “if the B.C. government chooses to act to ensure the sustainability of …fisheries jobs and fisheries-dependent communities, it has many policy and program tools at hand to do so … such as domestic processing requirements; price-setting mechanisms; and fair sharing of seafood landed value.”

The B.C. ministry of agriculture was not available for comment during the writ period. 

Those changes, Lawson said, can’t come soon enough. 

“The opportunity for selling locally is lost when someone else is dictating where (fish harvesters) sell their fish, but then you don’t really see that food security, the local nutrition, going to ourselves.”

Top photo credit: The regulatory system that allocates the right to fish on the B.C. coast has prevented many fish harvesters from feeding the province during the pandemic, said James Lawson, a B.C. fish harvester.Marc Fawcett-Atkinson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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