B.C. fishers floundering as deep corporate pockets buy up licences

By Alec Lazenby May 10, 2023

Fishing advocates are urging Ottawa to do something to support B.C. fishers struggling from declining catch quotas and the buying up of licences by large investors.

While foreign ownership in Canada’s fishing industry was the topic of discussion at the federal Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans on Monday, representatives from the BC Seafood Alliance, Coastal First Nations – Great Bear Initiative, and Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union used their presentations to draw the committee’s attention to other issues affecting the industry.

Paul Kariya, chief policy advisor for the Coastal First Nations – Great Bear Initiative, said domestic fish processing companies — like Jim Pattison Group-owned Canfisco — have created a monopoly by buying up the vast majority of harvesting licences in the province.

These licences are then leased to harvesters who sell their catch back to the processors for prices made artificially lower through collusion between licence holders, alleged Kariya.

According to Liberal MP for Fleetwood—Port Kells Ken Hardie, Canfisco owns 243 licences worth $25.4 million, while the Jim Pattison group itself owns 135 licences worth $22.9 million.

Kariya said First Nations are being forced out of the market by these companies, which have substantially deeper pockets to buy up licences.

“The participation of First Nation fishers was significantly reduced in recent decades due to fleet rationalization initiatives, which disproportionately affected Indigenous fish harvesters, as well as ongoing corporate concentration of licences and the depletion of marine resources,” he said, referencing the practice of fishers reducing the number of working vessels to make their operations economically viable.

Kariya said foreign firms fit into the broader trend of large companies, both domestic and international, pushing out smaller owner-operators.

The reason for this, according to Kariya, Hardie and other presenters, are federal licensing rules for the west coast, which allow licences to be sold at market prices.

While this was meant to spread industry benefits across communities, it has resulted in the concentration of licences among just a few holders.

Kariya urged the committee to pressure Ottawa to implement recommendations it made in 2019 to institute an owner-operator model on the west coast, requiring licence holders to be present on vessels during harvest and restricting licence sale prices.

Another idea put to the committee would see Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) buy back licences and sell them to local harvesters at fair prices.

A salmon swims in B.C. waters (Government of British Columbia)

Licence losses an issue, say advocates

Christina Burridge, executive director of the BC Seafood Alliance, disputed Kariya’s suggestion that large corporations are to blame, instead claiming that conservation efforts have reduced the number of licences available.

“Refused access is the main impediment,” she told the committee.

One plan to protect B.C.’s coast from northern Vancouver Island to the Alaska border — the MPA Network BC Northern Shelf Initiative — “will reduce access for key species by 25 to 45 per cent, despite 25 per cent of these waters already being protected,” Burridge said.

These efforts, combined with DFO’s plan to reduce the size of the fishing industry through $123 million in licence buybacks, will drive harvesters out of business, Burrige argued. She called for the government to combat speculation, not investment.

Over the last two years, the federal government has shut down over 60 per cent of B.C.’s commercial fisheries.

Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union president Greg Pretty said that, if his experiences in Newfoundland are any indication, it is fishing industry “cartels” that are to blame for the struggles of local harvesters.

Pretty spent his time before the committee discussing the foreign ownership aspect of the industry, saying foreign companies like Royal Greenland are just as much to blame as the Jim Pattison Group for the condition of the Canadian fishing industry.

“Corporate concentration has inflated the cost of licences, and in many cases an in-shore harvester does not have access to that level of capital,” he said.

“It is incumbent on every member here and all Canadians who value our oceans to protect this public resource and to ensure it is the people of Canada who enjoy the economic and societal benefits that come from our waters.”