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COVID-19 crisis exposes cracks in the fishing supply chain

The COVID-19 crisis is exposing just how vulnerable BC fish harvesters are under a privatized, globalized, fishery on the West Coast. BC fisheries have been deemed an essential service yet the system has so disenfranchised fish harvesters that many are tied up, unable to fish.

Many quota and licence owners have invested in the fishing industry in the same way speculative real-estate investors buy into the housing market, and they now control whether or not fish harvesters are able to get out on the water.

“The corporate and investor control of licences and quota makes it difficult for fishermen to make their own decisions, take on risks, or build solutions such as the building of local markets,” said Racheal Weymer, the Director of Community Fisheries with Ecotrust Canada.

“At a time when everything is more precarious than ever, the lack of control over leasing of fishing access is just one of the many challenges that makes it harder for fishermen to provide food for people in their communities and across Canada.”

The case for a mixed fisheries system

Selling solely into international markets means that we are relying wholly on the global food supply chain and international sales corporations that are more interested in profits for themselves than the well-being of fish harvesters or shoreworkers in BC. This reliance on global markets and companies is especially precarious when trade is limited or shut down in a time of crisis.

This weakness is showing itself now as companies with large inventories who sell internationally are either preventing fish harvesters from fishing by not releasing quotas to them or by refusing to buy their fish, because they do not want the international market price driven down by new product on the market.

A fish harvester might want to fish at a lower price, or sell their catch to a local buyer, but they can’t if what and when they fish, and who they sell too, is controlled by a large corporation. A fishery that isn’t dominated by investors and offshore buyers, that promotes the independence of fishermen, and includes not only international but independent local markets, would create a more diverse and resilient system for harvester’s sales.

Halibut, for example

If we had a diverse system where a pool of independent fish harvesters could work together and respond creatively, they could adapt more efficiently in a crisis, such as what we are experiencing now.

Let’s look at the halibut industry as an example of how the current system isn’t serving fishermen or local communities.

“I think what’s happening with halibut is very instructive,” said Joy Thorkelson, President of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union (UFAWU-Unifor). “The people who control the quota are the people who are controlling whether people go out fishing or not. In many cases it’s not a fisherman deciding if he can go fishing, it’s someone else deciding for him.”

Joy Thorkelson, President of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union (UFAWU-Unifor) (Shannon Lough/Ecotrust Canada)

For example, a fish harvester who has leased halibut quota from a private investor at a high lease rate of $5 a pound can’t afford to go fishing if the cost of halibut has dropped to $4 a pound. A fish harvester would lose money going fishing — they have to pay their crew, upkeep of the vessel, and pay the lease holder for the fish quota.

“It shows the greed of some of the investors that even in this time of crisis they are refusing to lower lease rates and that fishermen stay tied up and not fish. Some are gambling that if they wait, fish prices might go up, so that they can charge the higher lease fee — instead of lowering their fees and making it feasible for the fish harvester to go fishing now,” said Thorkelson.

Collaboration across the fishing industry

Weymer is working with active fish harvesters alongside Tasha Sutcliffe, a senior policy advisor at Ecotrust Canada, and Thorkelson, to support efforts to sustain local fishing and processing opportunities in this challenging time, and rebuild stronger local fishing economies that don’t solely rely on global companies, markets, and supply chains.

“We don’t have an enabling environment for local harvesters or local food supply chains in a time when we need it most.”

— Racheal Weymer, Director, Community Fisheries

In the face of the crisis, many West Coast fishing industry organizations and harvesters are working together for the common good — a collaboration Thorkelson said she hasn’t seen in a long time.

On March 25, a virtual meeting with 150 people from across BC’s fishing industry — active fish harvesters, First Nations leaders, and non-profits, including Ecotrust Canada — led to the formation of a 25-person emergency COVID-19 Active Fishermen’s Committee. Together they are tackling the most pressing COVID-19 related issues for the fishing industry, including the development of protocols for community-fisheries interactions, market stabilization for the sector, and financial relief for fish harvesters.

The collaborative and adaptive approach emerging from a crisis offers hope for the future of our fishery and a more fair, more resilient, localized fishing economy.

“I think people are going to look at the benefits of collaborating more and the fishermen are going to realize that by working together we can all learn from each other’s experiences. I’m hoping there’s going to be some positive change from this,” Thorkelson said.