Positions On Issues

Increased First Nations Access to Commercial Fisheries

Member organizations of the BC Seafood Alliance represent both First Nations and non-First Nations investors in the commercial seafood industry in BC. Collectively, they account for about 90 per cent of the seafood produced in British Columbia. The Alliance understands and accepts that there will be increased access to fisheries and marine resources for First Nations both inside and outside the treaty process. We want to draw the attention of both federal and provincial governments to the need to ensure that this increased access takes place fairly and equitably in a way that assures both conservation and economic viability. We fear that current policies are leading to an industry that is not sustainable, not competitive, and not profitable for any operator, First Nations or otherwise. A worthless fishery is a worthless fishery whoever has the right to fish it.

The BCSA has four key principles to guide development of the seafood industry: conservation, environmental sustainability, market responsiveness and security of access. Long-term uncertainty is currently a significant deterrent to investment in the development of sustainable seafood resources in BC. Governments must ensure certainty of access as well as a responsive and progressive regulatory and policy environment in all aspects of seafood production. Our vision for a modern seafood industry in BC calls for

a) a positive business climate for all seafood businesses in BC-whether they be individual operators, companies or First Nations-that encourages investment in future development. This requires greater security of access and implementation of policies that ensure any new access to capture fisheries be retired with compensation out of existing fishery access; and

b) an industry that can count on government to ensure that all commercial fishing, aquaculture, and seafood processing interests in British Columbia are regulated by a single, non-discriminatory management and legislative framework that does not create unfair advantage for some businesses over their competitors.

The practical consequences of both provincial and federal current policy appears to be leading us in the opposite direction entirely-to a patchwork of separate fisheries regulated differently with inconsistent conservation requirements, licence requirements, access fees, gear restrictions, timing of harvest, safety requirements, food safety inspection and regulatory enforcement. If this policy continues, we could see 30 or more different management regimes for some commercial fisheries on the BC coast. This balkanization of commercial fisheries management would jeopardize conservation and destroy the economic wealth the fishery can provide.

While the first examples of separately managed First Nations commercial fisheries in BC go back to the creation of "pilot sales" agreements in 1992, a look at the current situation with spawn on kelp (SOK) is particularly instructive since it exemplifies the problems with the lack of clarity over new access. The SOK commercial fishery is a 90 per cent First Nations fishery. In 2001, the federal government with the agreement of the provincial government at the time expanded the limited entry SOK fishery by allowing the Heiltsuk band to produce an extra 96,000 lbs (or the equivalent of six more licences) on their existing licences. The deal also allowed the Heiltsuk to operate their licences under different terms and conditions (including increased quotas and reduced monitoring) from other licence holders. Existing licences were not bought out in this expansion and there was no consultation with the Spawn on Kelp Operators Association (SOKOA). The consequence of this expansion-on top of a previous ill-considered one-was significant disruption in the sole market for SOK compounded by the inability for the producers to respond to structural change in that market. Over the course of the two expansions, both landed value and the value of licences have declined sharply. Separate and different rules for catch monitoring and exceeding quota also have serious implications for conservation while the lack of consultation has undermined the co-management arrangement negotiated in good faith by SOKOA. 

To avoid this kind of disastrous prospect, there must be an equitable and transparent means to transfer fishing allocation to First Nations, one that pays fair, market-based compensation for existing licences without disadvantaging First Nations in their commercial operations. Any obligation to provide increased access for First Nations should not be borne by the existing industry (First Nations or non-First Nations) or by First Nations bands and communities, but by all Canadians. Similarly, the transfer of allocation should not result in separate fisheries as this results in a devaluing of the fishery for all. And all fisheries should be managed to the same conservation standards-different conservation requirements in the same fishery are simply unacceptable and contrary to the first principle of Canadian fisheries management.

A comparison with the successful New Zealand seafood sector demonstrates how security of access is fundamental to both conservation and investment. In New Zealand, recent treaty settlements for commercial fishing were accomplished by purchasing non-Maori fishing businesses and transferring them to the Maori for operation as part of the existing commercial industry. In terms of access and management, the Maori are treated in exactly the same way as other commercial participants. They own their own regular commercial quota and fish it in common with non-Maori quota holders. Their equivalent of our "food, social and ceremonial" fishery is a separate, non-commercial activity. The result is a market-driven, extremely successful industry that draws investment from around the world and invests in turn in other countries. This is the model that governments should be trying to adapt to British Columbia. Instead we have an inconsistent, patchwork approach that can only result in a cottage industry that will always be a drain on the public treasury rather than a sustainable, profitable industry that contributes to the wealth of communities and the province.