BC wild fisheries provide a bounty of values to coastal communities and Canadians. Our Pacific fisheries are a critical source of local healthy food, a key contributor to our economy, a provider of jobs, a connector to nature, and a foundation of our identity itself.
But coastal communities have seen a significant decline in their ability to fish along their local shores and sustain their way of life. Not because of a lack of fish, but due to many attempts at industry reform that have disenfranchised these communities, including First Nations who have relied on this resource since time immemorial.
Currently, the increasing privatization and value of this public resource mirrors the Vancouver housing market, as speculative investors are attaining profits from owning and renting fishing licenses and quota, and taking this value out of the hands of local communities.
Tasha Sutcliffe, Ecotrust Canada’s VP, is optimistic though that current fisheries policies can be changed to better support independent fishermen, First Nations and coastal communities.
What’s the current state of the fishing industry on the Pacific Coast?
We’ve observed through our working relationships, research, and analysis, that the absence of social, economic, and cultural considerations in policy development have resulted in a current fisheries policy framework that does not work for coastal communities and fish harvesters in British Columbia.
Currently, one of the greatest threats to healthy fisheries and coastal communities in BC is the increasing large scale privatization of this critical public resource. This is the result of policies that enable private speculative investors and large companies, whether Canadian or offshore, to purchase, own and lease local fishing rights with no obligation to actually be on board a boat and harvest fish.
In BC, the resulting high cost of licenses and quota and low share of value going to crew on the boat, is leaving no room for independent fishermen, small scale community and family-owned fishing businesses to exist. It has led to loss of jobs, declining incomes, negative environmental impacts, safety concerns, and less sustainable seafood available locally. It has also meant the loss of the many broader benefits communities have had from their deeply rooted connection to the sea such as multigenerational transfer of knowledge, access to food, and local environmental stewardship.
What’s the opportunity for change?
In addition to restoring lost protection to fish and fish habitat, the federal government is looking to enshrine social, economic and cultural objectives into the Fisheries Act and enable policy change in the Pacific region. Both the current Federal and BC Provincial governments are concerned with the wellbeing of coastal communities and understand the huge impact fisheries policy can have on that.
There is now, for the first time in decades, the possibility of correcting current public policy in BC so that independent fish harvesters and their communities are better supported.
As a result, in February this year, Ecotrust Canada facilitated the Fisheries for Communities Gathering on behalf of those who reached out to us expressing the need for such an event. Among the over 120 participants were young and old fish harvesters, coastal community mayors, First Nations leaders and fish harvesters, academics, and environmental organizations.
Despite the diverse perspectives and interests in the room, the Gathering came to a consensus on the need for fisheries policy reform in the Pacific region, and a core request to be made to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans to start the process to address this through a licensing policy review. The gathering also identified key principles for reform, including protecting the independence of active fish harvesters, prioritizing reconciliation with First Nations, and more local, decentralized and inclusive governance. We compiled and released a Proceedings Report of the day so that the information and outcomes can support the efforts of fish harvesters and organizations to affect change.
Right now, Parliament’s Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans is reviewing the proposed changes to the Fisheries Act, and I felt honoured to be invited as a witness to share the research and experiences that Ecotrust Canada has gained through working with coastal communities and fisheries over the years.
Is fishing still a viable career for current and future fishermen?
We know that sustainable, small-scale fisheries and viable, independent fish harvesters can provide multiple benefits to their communities. Active harvesters are small businesses who are running operations, employing crew, buying local supplies, giving back to the community, ensuring that their family, community, and country members have healthy and high quality food, and they are risking their lives to do so.
But we need to work together to ensure the right policy framework is enacted to support them.
Young, passionate and already well-experienced fish harvesters such as Cailyn Siider, James Lawson, Chelsey Ellis (shown above) and Duncan Cameron, all stood as witnesses to the Standing Committee to have their voices heard. This future generation of fish harvesters are already working to create the change they want to see, for a career they want to continue in, and for coastal communities they want to live in.
And, Ecotrust Canada will continue to offer our expertise, research, and analysis in supporting fish harvesters such as these four, community partners, and governments, in working toward the common goal of creating a fair, prosperous, and sustainable Canadian fishery from coast to coast to coast.