Eco-group fears move will mean privatization

B.C.’s salmon fishery needs a quota system, says an official with one of the Pacific region’s biggest industry players.

Rob Morley, vice-president of human resources and corporate development for the Canadian Fishing Co. (Canfisco), said a commercial salmon quota system will spread the catch around, provide a bigger financial return for fishermen, increase safety and meet the needs of First Nations in a post-treaty environment.

“Right now, there’s too many people trying to eke out survival in a system that’s not working for them,” says Morley.

Several B.C. fisheries are subject to annual pre-set quotas that limit how many pounds of fish they can catch. Boat skippers, companies and quota registries buy and sell individual fishing quotas (IFQs) in a free-market system.

Photo courtesy Ecotrust Canada, 2004
The harbour at Tofino, where the fishermen’s wharf has lost 65 per cent of its commercial licences in less than a decade.

The commercial salmon fishery operates under a separate market-based licensing system whereby licences are bought and sold, and one boat can stack up several licences to catch more fish.

Morley says his company’s position is in line with the findings of a joint federal-provincial task force headed by Peter Pearse and Don McRae, whose report, Treatise and Transition: Towards a Sustainable Fishery on the West Coast, called for industry players to be allowed to buy, sell and trade long-term quotas without restriction.

Morley was reacting to a new study by Vancouver-based non-profit group Ecotrust Canada, which is calling on the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to put control of B.C.’s fishing industry back in the hands of smaller West Coast communities.

The DFO, which regulates the fishing industry and sets fish-stock conservation guidelines, is expected to introduce a commercial salmon quota next year.

Ecotrust Canada contends that IFQs spell the privatization of public fisheries. As a result, quotas are in the hands of too few large players, quotas cost way more than vessels and equipment, and large urban centres have wrestled control of the fishing industry away from West Coast and aboriginal communities, resulting in job losses and a huge social cost.

“They’re basically saying the opportunities are skewed against people in smaller communities,” said Morley. “The reality is that the vast majority of licences are currently fished by people who live in smaller communities.”

He said many fishers from smaller communities who have profited have opted to move to larger centres because they have more social, cultural and educational opportunities. First Nations also favour a salmon-quota system that can provide them with a good livelihood, he added.

Ecotrust Canada’s report singled out Canfisco, Canada’s largest salmon canner, as an example of an “absentee landlord.” Citing 2002 figures, Ecotrust said Canfisco owned 244 licences in various fisheries while estimating the firm’s quotas and licences had a market value of $105 million. Canfisco does not release the amount of fish it processes, said Morley.

Vancouver-based Canfisco, a division of the private Pattison Group, is more commonly known by its Gold Seal brand of canned salmon, halibut and other seafood products.

DFO has indicated that smaller fishers will be compensated if they cannot obtain quotas and have to leave the industry – a move on which all sides agree, said Morley.

Ecotrust is calling for DFO to change its policy and provide low-interest loans to smaller local governments in B.C. that would allow the governments to lease quotas to fishers and use the proceeds to pay off the loans and fund docks, harbours and other infrastructure.

“I don’t really understand why a politically run business works better than one that’s run by the private sector,” said Morley.

But Morley indicated that he does not have a problem with a community that can raise funds, sell leases and compete. “We live in a market economy,” he said.

But Ecotrust contends the market is unfairly weighted in favour of corporations that have the most capital.

“We’re not saying take everything away from corporations and give it back to communities,” said Ecotrust Canada president Ian Gill. “Let’s diversify the economy.”

Gill said Ecotrust is not calling for Ottawa to provide a handout. He said “several million dollars” – as opposed to hundreds of millions – could put the buzz back in rural coastal communities. Otherwise, he added, Ottawa will be faced with “despondent, bummed-out” communities that don’t have fishing industries anymore.

“Eventually, we’re going to have these postcard communities, these little pretty picture postcard towns, on the B.C. coast and there’s going to be nothing going on there except tourists coming by and taking pictures of what they think are fishing boats,” said Gill.

Ecotrust is calling for DFO to establish a system that puts more boats on the water.

“The old adage is that there are too many boats chasing too few fish,” said Gill. “That’s what we’ve always been told. So the logical conclusion to that is, if you take out the boats, you somehow re-order the balance. Well, right now, there’s too much capital chasing too few fish – and that’s the real problem.”

Gill said the recommendation will improve the prospects of conservation and the chances that there even is a fishery 10 to 20 years from now. When stocks are low, communities and DFO can make decisions not to fish – so Ecotrust’s recommendation is about making a decision not whether or not to fish.

If the fishery is not protected, said Gill, there will be nothing for corporations to profit from.

Eric Enno Tamm, an Ecotrust researcher who wrote the group’s report, titled Catch-22, Conservation, Communities and The Privatization of B.C. Fisheries, said a quota-based licensing system will prevent young fishermen from entering the industry.

Meanwhile, aboriginals who do not own their homes will be unable to obtain financing to purchase fisheries and operate boats.

“The big competition now isn’t about fishing – it’s about buying licences,” said Tamm, who was born and raised in Ucluelet on the west coast of Vancouver Island and worked for 10 years as a skipper, deckhand and fish buyer in the commercial salmon fishing industry.

“You compete to buy the quotas. That’s the big competition now – and rural communities are losing out.”

(Monte Stewart can be reached at monte@businessedge.ca)