Joel Baglole, Vancouver Sun, November 15, 2004
Rural communities along British Columbia’s coast are losing access to their traditional fishing grounds as ownership of the province’s commercial fishing industry becomes increasingly concentrated in urban centres such as Vancouver and Victoria, says a new study by Canadian and U.S. environmental groups.
The report, by Vancouver conservation non-profit group Ecotrust Canada and its sister organization, Ecotrust of Portland, Ore., says residents of B.C. coastal communities such as Masset, Kitimat, Bella Bella and Ucluelet are increasingly unable to afford commercial fishing licences.
That means they’re forced to watch as fishing vessels from Vancouver and Victoria sail the waters near their homes and catch the fish swimming outside their front doors.
"It’s a tragedy," says Ian Gill, president of Ecotrust Canada. "The one thing people in these communities know how to do is fish. And they’re not getting the opportunity to do so. They can’t compete for these very expensive licences."
The commercial fishing industry contributes $500 million a year to B.C.’s economy and employs 15,000 people, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) in Ottawa, which regulates B.C.’s commercial fishing industry.
Ecotrust says DFO has forced a consolidation in B.C.’s fishing industry over the past decade by restricting the number of commercial fishing licences it issues and imposing quotas on the amount of fish that licence holders can catch.
Fewer available licences and quotas have forced B.C. fisherman to buy licences from one another in an effort to maximize the number of fish species they can hunt and the amount of each fish species they can catch.
DFO officials didn’t return calls Sunday.
The report, titled Catch 22: Conservation, Communities and the Privatization of B.C. Fisheries, says that between 1994 and 2002, rural B.C. communities with populations under 10,000 have lost 45 per cent of their fishing licences for salmon, groundfish and shellfish.
Today in B.C., there are 4,587 commercial fishing licences. Of that total, 1,858, or 40.5 per cent, are owned by fisherman in Vancouver and Victoria, the highest concentration in the province.
Only 15 per cent of the fishing licences are owned by fisherman along B.C.’s north coast, and only three per cent are owned by people on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The remaining 42 per cent are scattered across south coastal B.C. and the interior.
"Just as these rural communities are getting more economically depressed, a major source of revenue for them, fish, is no longer accessible," says Astrid Scholz, an economist with Ecotrust in Portland.
The major problem is cost. A licence to fish salmon using a gillnet in B.C. can cost as much as $82,000, according to the report. A licence to catch salmon using large nets can cost $360,000, while a licence to catch shrimp in B.C. waters can set fisherman back $50,000.
Gill says rural B.C. communities — where incomes are, on average, 35 per cent lower than in urban centres — are at an economic disadvantage in terms of acquiring fishing licences.
Gill also notes that many fisherman use their homes as equity to buy fishing licences. However, home values in rural areas, especially in the north, are considerably lower than in Vancouver and Victoria, making it difficult for rural residents to use their homes to purchase a fishing licence.
"The ownership of B.C.’s fishery is now concentrated in very few hands," says Gill.
Ecotrust’s report says that if things don’t change, more fishing licences will end up with corporations such as the Canadian Fishing Company, or Canfisco.
Owned by the Jim Pattison Group, Canfisco owned 242 licences in various B.C. fisheries in 2002. It owned 93 licences to fish salmon and 132 licences to fish herring in B.C. coastal waters. Canfisco is the largest canner of salmon in Canada, and the largest Canadian exporter of roe herring.
Among the solutions the report offers is for communities in rural areas to pool resources and purchase fishing licences that can then be leased to local fisherman. Such a system is now being used in parts of Alaska, says Gill.
The report also calls for DFO to do more community consultations when revising policies affecting B.C.’s commercial fishery and the pricing of fishing licences.
"When you’re sitting in Ottawa, it’s very difficult to understand what’s happening in these rural B.C. communities," says Gill.
A SNAPSHOT OF B.C’S FISHERIES INDUSTRY:
Value Of B.C. wild fisheries in 2002: $545 million
Amount of farmed salmon produced in B.C. in 2002: 85,000 metric tonnes
Number of commercial fishing licences owned by Jimmy Pattison’s Canfisco in 2002: 244
Number of halibut licences owned by residents of Ahousat B.C.: 0
Percentage of halibut licences owned by B.C. first nations in 1950: 28%
Percentage of halibut licences owned by B.C. first nations in 2003: 12%
Number of working fisherman on disability leave or killed in B.C. in 2003: 347