The blue economy needs to be an equitable economy

What is the Blue Economy? 

Canada is creating a nationwide roadmap for ocean development: The Blue Economy Strategy is Canada’s vision to grow a sustainable ocean based economy that creates jobs in coastal communities while ensuring the oceans remain healthy. On June 15, 2021 the Fisheries for Communities Coalition (which TBuck is a part of) met with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to explain what we want to see from the Blue Economy Strategy.

We want to see equitable fisheries and thriving coastal communities at the centre of this strategy. The development of a Blue Economy Strategy represents a huge opportunity for DFO to revise harmful fishery policy that has been draining the value of fisheries away from coastal communities in BC for decades.

Are our fisheries doing well financially?

A huge driver of the Blue Economy Strategy is...economy! In BC, our fisheries are a huge piece of the existing ocean economy. So, are BC fisheries currently meeting their potential to contribute to sustainable economic growth for people who work in the industry, for their communities, and for the province and the country as a whole?

BC fish harvesters are losing income

In recent decades, the Canadian seafood industry, and fisheries in other high-income countries have gone through an unprecedented growth surge since the end of the Great Recession (2009). How has this industry growth translated into the livelihoods of fish harvesters in BC?

In 2010, harvesters in BC were making 13% more than the average Canadian fish harvester. Eight years later, BC harvesters were making an average of $23,000 for their work, which was 22.7% lower than the average of all Canadian harvesters. (Stats using StatsCan tax filer data. 2018 is the most recent year that data is available. Dollar amounts adjusted for inflation.)

The fishing fleet is also suffering from failure to attract and retain new entrants as the workforce ages.

By comparing the age distribution of BC fish harvesters in 2000 with 2018 it is evident that the core of the BC fishing fleet has aged, with half of the workforce over the age of 45 by 2018. Over this period, BC also saw a 25% decline in fish harvesting employment, and this data suggests that the decline stemmed from core working age people leaving to seek better incomes and career opportunities, rather than older workers retiring. (Data from Statistics Canada Tax filer data. 2018 is the most recent year that data is available.)

If the financial value of Canada’s fisheries is increasing, why aren’t BC fish harvesters making a better living? 

In the 1990s, fisheries in BC saw major policy changes with the objective of decreasing the fishing fleet to protect fish stocks. Among other changes, DFO privatized fishing access rights, making fishing licences and quota available on the open market to the highest bidder. The expectation was that over time these policies would result in stable employment levels, higher incomes, and a more economically robust and sustainable fishery. Unfortunately the opposite has occurred.

Fishery policy in BC is favoring wealthy investors over independent fishermen.

Licensing policy in BC is unrestricted, anyone from anywhere can create a BC registered company and purchase licenses and quota which gives them access to fish in BC waters. As a result, large seafood companies, food processors, and other external investors are buying up more and more licenses and quotas and inflating their value. Individuals in coastal communities can’t compete in this open market for fishing access rights. Crew workers and new entrant harvesters who aspire to own their own boat, licence and quota can’t afford to because the purchase prices are too high to be justified by the profits they would make from fishing. Without the option to buy a licence and quota, young harvesters have to lease one instead. 

With more investors owning access to fishing, and more local harvesters leasing access, the lion’s share of the value of fish caught off our coast is going to processing companies and other investors. This inequity is draining communities of the benefits they had traditionally derived from fishing.

Fisheries are worth far more than the sale of the fish. 

Money is not the only value being lost. Fisheries in BC are integral to the health and well-being of people and ecosystems along the coast. Community-based fisheries are a cornerstone of coastal communities, providing support for local food systems, transportation, ecosystem connections, stewardship and monitoring of local resources, and intergenerational transfer of knowledge, (vessel handling, navigation, safety at sea, etc.). The benefits of fisheries ripple outwards improving the well-being of the entire fishing community.

Current policy has also degraded aspects of Indigenous ownership of fisheries in BC. In the 1970s, First Nations harvesters represented close to one-quarter of the workforce in the commercial fishery, and this included many of the most successful captains. However, control of many of the I and F category licences intended for Indigenous harvesters have since fallen into the hands of investors and processors. As a direct result, many Indigenous harvesters are now tethered to fishing for a licence owner with no ability to negotiate price for their catch. Concerted efforts today to expand Indigenous access are further constrained due to  outside investors and foreign interests driving up licence and quota prices in a fully open market. 

Let’s make a change

Switching to legislation that protects local harvester access is not a new idea. In fact, this practice has  already occurred  on the East Coast of Canada.DFO made legislative and regulatory changes to prioritize the protection and long-term viability of independent, owner-operator fishing enterprises, and the retention of control over fisheries access rights within adjacent coastal communities. We can apply many of these principles on the West Coast. 

What we need in a Blue Economy Strategy

In order to have a successful Blue Economy, we need an action plan  to put the control over and benefit from fisheries access back into the hands of  harvesters, First Nations, and rural coastal communities. 

The Blue Economy  Strategy should aim to develop a thriving fisheries economy on all coasts, where equitable shares of the  wealth drawn from adjacent resources flow to harvesters and their  communities, and where a new generation can build resilient communities with  productive engagement throughout the fisheries value chain. This strategy must  advance reconciliation efforts now underway with First Nations.  

To create this future the Blue Economy Strategy must include the  development of a BC fisheries licencing policy that transitions the ownership of  licences and quota to bona fide BC fish harvesters and First Nations. The Blue  Economy Strategy for the commercial fishery in British Columbia should include  the following directions to the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans, and the Canadian  Coast Guard: 

1) By 2022, develop and commit to implementing a new policy framework that  requires that BC licenses and quota can only be owned by bona fide fish  harvesters and First Nations, with the following milestones:

  • By December 2021, require that there be no further sales of BC licences  and quota to non-Canadian beneficial owners,
  • By 2022, implement the voluntary owner/operator designation as  proposed by the UFAWU.
  • By 2025, all licences and quota shall only be owned by bona fide fish  harvesters or First Nations.  

2) Establish an independently led, inclusive, and transparent engagement process for development and implementation of this policy paying close attention to the advice on process provided by the FOPO Report 21 West Coast Fisheries: Sharing Risks and Benefits. 

3) Develop and implement a strategy with pathways and transition mechanisms  for the establishment of made-in-BC policies, that will ensure ownership of  licenses and quotas are held by bona fide BC fish harvesters and First Nations.  Many of these are outlined in the FOPO report, including: 

  • Transparent tracking of beneficial ownership,
  • Transparent tracking of socio-economic data on fisheries,
  • Financial Incentives for independent ownership of licences,
  • Investment in infrastructure and strategies to recapture values from  processing and ancillary services in adjacent communities,
  • Strategic development of labour force renewal, and
  • Following the federal licensing policy change, provision of business  support and financing programs that support the affordable  transition of ownership to independent fish harvesters and First Nations.

4) The implementation framework must also provide transitional support and fair  compensation for specific groups whose interests may be unfairly compromised  by such changes.

Read the full brief from Fisheries for Communities