Skip to main content
At sea and dockside observer work during the 2022 commercial gillnett fleet on the North Coast, Prince Rupert, BC, in Area 4.

Testimony: Addressing Corporate Concentration in West Coast Fisheries

At sea and dockside observer work during the 2022 commercial gillnett fleet on the North Coast, Prince Rupert, BC, in Area 4.

UPDATE: After listening to 37 witnesses testify before the Committee between May 8 and June 5, 2023, the federal Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans (FOPO) presented its report on Foreign Ownership and Corporate Concentration of Fishing Licenses and Quota to the House of Commons with 19 recommendations to the Government of Canada. Read the full report here. 

On May 11, 2023, Tasha Sutcliffe, our Senior Policy Advisor for Community Fisheries, testified to the Standing Committee of Fisheries and Oceans (FOPO) during their study on foreign ownership and corporate concentration of fishing licences and quota in West Coast fisheries. Read her rationale on why federal regulators need to focus on creating fleet separation or owner-operator rules to help control how the benefits of our resources flow.

Tasha Sutcliffe's byline

I am currently an independent contractor and am here in my role as Senior Policy Advisor with Ecotrust Canada. I also work with Coastal First Nations to support the development of their community-based fisheries, a key aspect of the Fisheries Resources Reconciliation Agreement.

I have spent 27 years supporting fish harvesters and fishing communities, and I believe fisheries, as a renewable resource, can be well managed for environmental, social, cultural, and economic objectives. And licence policy is one of the things that affect our ability to realize this.

This is my third time testifying on this subject, the first time was in early 2019. I want to thank this committee for keeping this topic on the table and continuing to support the people and communities on the coasts.

In preparing for today, I went through licence reports again, and I had a moment when I questioned why we have to continue to show the federal government the evidence of foreign ownership and corporate concentration in BC fisheries. We know there is foreign ownership, we know there is corporate concentration, and there has been much information shared on this.

  • We’ve heard of companies that link back to foreign parent companies.
  • Global companies continue even to this day to buy up smaller local operators to consolidate control of supply.
  • Cash exchanges from offshore buyers to avoid taxes or worse.
  • Licences and offloading facilities owned by offshore interests – including those linked to the Big Circle Boys of money laundering.
  • Full vertical integration of supply chains and cartel-like control of markets – with no transparency.
  • Blank cheques at the licence broker to outbid any local operator that tries to buy in.

We’ve heard this information and more. We’ve seen the evidence. And we’ve been told how dangerous it is for those in the industry to provide details for fear of punitive action.

And what is so problematic is that we do not know the full scope of who owns licences and quotas in BC, or where they are from, because anyone can buy a licence or quota, and anyone can sign an agreement for someone else to operate it, and for any fee. And we do not track this information. We do not know the true picture of who is making money from BC fishing access. And the beneficial ownership survey will not provide us with answers on beneficial ownership because it didn’t ask the licence holder if they owned the licence. And in BC, the licence holders often do not own them.

We heard DFO explain the protections against foreign ownership in Atlantic Canada. In BC, we don’t limit corporate, processor, or foreign ownership of licences. And we haven’t even touched the mess of trying to track quota ownership.

But what I really want to say today is that, in my opinion, focusing on the ownership being foreign or corporate isn’t really the heart of the point. I certainly have no interest in fanning anti-Asian or any anti sentiments.

What I care about is if the fishery is working as it should — benefitting those who are on the deck of the boat and the communities of the coast, rebuilding First Nations access and the revitalization of their fishing fleets, and supporting societal values for BC and Canada. If the current system resulted in these outcomes being achievable for fishermen, First Nations, and coastal communities, then I wouldn’t be here fighting for change. The fact is, however, that under the current regime, it is doing the opposite.

Fishing enterprises are failing. Good fishing crews are extremely hard to find and keep. Skippers have a huge amount of risk and work to secure a viable season — if they even can. New fishermen can’t afford to buy in to the fishery…new fishermen are rare, period. We are losing our local fleets, we are losing the benefits of the fish being pulled out of the water, and it is in large part because we are losing control of access. The point, is the indisputable negative impacts of the current policy.

Breaking that down

The landed value of fish is not getting to the fish harvesters — and their fishing enterprises are unstable, lack security, and are hard to keep viable.

Why? Fish harvesters who run fishing enterprises are increasingly renters of access — not owners — and from year to year they have to take on all the risk and cost of fishing with no security of access or price.

Why? Fishing licences and quota are way outside the range of affordability not just because fish harvesters can’t get that kind of capital, but because even if they did they will never make enough money fishing to pay it off in their working lifetime!

So why is it so high? Many reasons. The first one: We have no fleet separation or owner-operator rules, and anyone can buy a licence.

Why would others buy a licence if the fishing return on investment (ROI) isn’t worth that? Because they are not solely benefitting from the fishing ROI. If you have deep pockets and are further up the value chain, and have access to fish markets, then you can pay more for licences. And, if you control enough supply, you can control the value chain. Or, even worse, you have other nefarious activities that make this investment even more lucrative. And this situation perpetuates itself. Even those buyers who do not want the huge asset investments in access must buy in to the system to stay competitive with these other players.

The lack of oversight and control on who can buy and operate BC fishing licences and quota in BC is crushing our fleet, it is eliminating viable owner-operators, and it is putting pressure on the smaller land-based operators to consolidate, and amass access themselves at great cost.

As you have heard, it is also making the fisheries objectives of First Nations impossible to reach — Nations have money, and they can’t even begin to buy access. At the BC Fisheries for Communities Gathering in February, we heard how the Coastal First Nations and UFAWU submitted a common position to Fisheries Minister Murray asking for licensing policy changes that will put BC licences and quota in the hands of working fishermen and First Nations. This must happen.

Over the last 12 years, we have had an average of nearly 210 million pounds of seafood (not including the nearly 150 million pounds of hake) being pulled out of our waters, and yet fish harvesters and First Nations can’t get into the fishery and make a reasonable financial return. This is inexcusable.

It is up to us to create the rules that control how the benefits of our resources flow. Without any rules, there will always be parties ready to take advantage. But companies will right themselves to be good partners when this is required to maintain their supply and meet business goals. Let’s give them a chance to do that and bring the full range of societal benefits of our approximately 360 million pounds of seafood back to First Nations and BC communities. This will take an investment of time and money, but the cost of inaction is much higher than the cost of creating good policy!

By Tasha Sutcliffe, Senior Policy Advisor, Ecotrust Canada

[Published May 11, 2023]