Ocean Battleground

Two books explore the contentious prospects for traditional fisheries and aquaculture.

A century of unrelenting industrial harvesting of the sea has led to the extermination and endangerment of an astonishing number of marine species and human ways of life associated with fishing. According to an article in the journal Science, if current trends continue in world fisheries, by 2048 there will be no fish to support any commercial fisheries. Alan Haig-Brown’s Still Fishin’: The B.C. Fishing Industry Revisited, which complements his earlier Fishing for a Living, helps provide an understanding of the devastating changes that have come to British Columbia’s fisheries in the past few decades. This is a complex history of changing fishing cultures along the B.C. coast. It centres on fishing families, their boats, the fish they hunt, and the companies and bureaucrats that increasingly control all three. What makes Still Fishin’ so distinctive is Haig-Brown’s use of extensive interviews to capture the voices of experienced Pacific fisherfolk.

Haig-Brown rightly categorizes fishing as an industrial sector. But the accounts he relates display a diversity of approaches to building a life based on hunting wild fish that transcend the term “industry.” In some of these narratives, boats become characters in their own right. We learn about the trees from which they were constructed, follow them fishing at sea with different owners and crew, and even witness their repurposing and final destruction at the scrapyard. Technological change, too, plays an important role, given successive advances in boat construction and fishing gear. The book’s close-up view, accompanied by constant references to the microhistories of various wild fish species, helps reveal the rich vernacular aspects of fishing in British Columbia. Such aspects resist capture by the standard narrative of the Pacific fisheries, as promulgated by government officials in Victoria or Ottawa. They also provide important glimmers of hope for the future. “As much as the popular press tells of the death of the commercial fishery,” Haig-Brown notes, “the people in this book speak to a future in which commercial fishing can continue to provide employment for those willing to do the work.”

Despite impressive resilience in the face of economic, ecological and managerial changes, most of the fisherfolk Haig-Brown interviews express deep unhappiness with the way that fishing resources are being privatized, as government quotas become concentrated outside of their hands. This trend is by no means new. Reading some of Haig-Brown’s stories, one is struck by the long history of B.C. fisherfolk (First Nation, settler and immigrant) being repeatedly and often violently separated from fish, fishing gear and their boats due to the vagaries of the Canadian state. “Racism has been a favorite tool of control, with fishermen and managers sharing responsibility,” notes Haig-Brown, chronicling some of the ugly chapters in the history of the B.C. fisheries:

In the first decade of the twentieth century, canneries like the one in Alert Bay purchased their fish from First Nations who controlled traps or beach seines in the river mouth. In the second decade, the processors introduced purse seiners to get the fish before they reached the rivers and the government made a law that Natives couldn’t own them. In the third decade, the government banned “Orientals,” primarily Japanese-Canadians, from fishing salmon with seiners—but now allowed Natives to fish them … In the 1940s, the government confiscated all the seine boats that Japanese-Canadians had been using to fish herring.

The last few decades have seen some of these injustices at least partially rectified—in the case of Native fisherfolk thanks to the impact of legal milestones such as the Supreme Court’s 1999 decision in the Delgamuukw case. But the long-term separation of fisherfolk and the fisheries continues, now due to stringent conservation policy. By means of an instrument known as the individual transferable quota, fish production has been pulled apart and rationalized into a detachable form of property. Because of the quotas’ transferability, they can be alienated from boat and gear licences. This has spurred the emergence of sealords who are replacing traditional owner operators, as fishing can now be managed by corporate agents who need no actual fishing experience or actual skills at finding and catching fish.

One of the underlying themes of Still Fishin’—and a point repeatedly raised by the fisherfolk interviewed—is that this narrative of separation and loss was not preordained. Haig-Brown contrasts the wrenching changes taking place in the B.C. industry with the more stable situation found in some other jurisdictions. In Alaska, for example, a “use it or lose it”’ rule mandates that licence holders be on their boats during the fishing season. This has ensured that government quotas remain in the hands of small owner-operators. Not coincidentally, says Haig-Brown, the Alaskan fisheries are now in a much healthier condition than B.C.’s.

While Still Fishin’ concentrates on the unique and diverse ways of living created by fisherfolk along the B.C. coast, there are frequent allusions to larger issues relating to federal government policy and the global political economy. Not surprisingly, Haig-Brown’s storytellers repeatedly cite fishing rules and regulations, and the ways these rules shape complicated commercial transactions involving the sale and leasing of boats and licences. It becomes clear just how important it is for commercial fisherfolk to keep closely attuned to such managerial minutiae, as they continually adjust their business strategies to try to flourish in a context that seems designed to replace them with vertically integrated seafood companies, in a setting where traditional fisheries may be almost fully replaced with industrial aquaculture.

Unfortunately both for the B.C. coast’s fish and for its fisherfolk, this unforgiving climate is not likely to change soon. With neoliberal capitalist forms of natural resource management remaining alive and well in Canada, the invisible hand of free markets continues to win out over the visible, experienced hands of actual fisherfolk, while the political focus on developing fish farming at the expense of wild fisheries continues. The emergence of aquaculture as a dominant player in Canadian fisheries, and the wider controversies surrounding it, are the subject of Nathan Young and Ralph Matthews’s The Aquaculture Controversy in Canada, a far–reaching exploration of the socioeconomic conditions associated with the industry on both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, especially Atlantic salmon farming in British Columbia.

This complex book brings clarity to a host of pressing issues. Young and Matthews place the polarizing debate over aquaculture not only in its local contexts but also in global perspective. They point out the extent to which aquaculture is quickly expanding internationally, both absolutely and as a proportion of the world market for seafood, and represents a potential “blue revolution” in the world’s oceans every bit as significant as the green revolution in global agriculture. Meanwhile, Canada’s role in the world seafood market continues to decline. “In the 1950s, Canada generated 5 percent of the world’s seafood production,” they observe. “By 2000, however, this had fallen to less than 1 percent.” In the market for salmon, for example, the rise of aquaculture first in Norway and the United Kingdom and now in Chile has led to significant declines in world prices, as well as growing economic concentration, with the world salmon industry now dominated by just two multinational corporations, both headquartered in Norway—Pan Fish and Cermaq (which in 2005 purchased George Weston Ltd.’s aquaculture arm, Pacific Canadian).

Young and Matthews explain the various reasons for the precipitous decline in Canada’s international market presence. The well-publicized crises in major fisheries such as Atlantic cod and Pacific salmon have played a major part. But so too has staunch opposition to aquaculture, especially on the B.C. coast, substantially curtailing this sector’s growth. The “crisis of legitimacy” facing aquaculture in Canada is at the heart of Young and Matthews’s investigation, which focuses explicitly on the aquaculture controversy itself rather than on the broader arguments over the sector’s desirability.

Who are the main groups aligned on either side of this Canadian debate? Young and Matthews show that the conflict is not as straightforward as is sometimes believed. While the seafood industry itself is a strong supporter of aquaculture, citing its ostensible economic benefits, especially to regions that have been hit by declines in traditional wild fisheries, the international environmental movement is staunchly opposed, based on possible risks both to wild fish stocks and to human health. Grassroots community groups on both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts are not uniformly aligned with either side, although many, especially on the B.C. coast, are deeply opposed to aquaculture. The role of governments, too, is highly mixed. This is in part due to the government’s contradictory role as both economic developer and natural resource regulator. But overall, both the federal and provincial governments’ development hats have won the day when crafting public policy. Contemporary industrial aquaculture projects are often tied to regional development, where the production of export commodities is promoted not just by seafood corporations and their private financial backers but by government agencies, which provide accommodating regulations as well as publicly financed subsidies.

Young and Matthews examine what they call the knowledge battlefield that has arisen in Canada’s aquaculture debate. The repeated contests over matters of fact, the sometimes fractious duels between different groups of scientific experts and the intervention of the media and public relations in polarizing issues are all described in detail. In the course of their analysis, Young and Matthews do a wonderful job of analyzing the problems with privileging a narrowly scientific view of an issue such as aquaculture, or indeed any issue involving fisheries. For example, most observers of the cod collapse on the Atlantic coast have emphasized science as the answer and fisherfolk as the problem. A recent editorial by The Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson on the Newfoundland cod fishery illustrates the belief of many landlubbers that if fisherfolk just listened to the science the fish would come back. But in their detailed and insightful study of just how the aquaculture controversy and its various scientific claims have played out in the public arena, Young and Matthews show the impossibility of using unbiased scientific results or applied research to settle disputes once and for all. Ultimately, decisions about capture and culture fisheries come down to judgements about how coastal lives ought to be lived and, crucially, how coastal citizens would like to be living in the future.

They finish their study by examining the economic and political aspects of the aquaculture controversy. Again, they situate the Canadian context within a global frame while providing data and analysis on the localized community development implications of different types of aquaculture along both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Their solid statistics on aquaculture-related employment cast further doubt on glowing claims by industry and government, as they point to a relatively low total number of jobs created and the limited participation of women. At the same time, their data show the extent to which the jobs provided by corporate employers in the sector provide higher remuneration and greater job satisfaction than those associated with smaller aquaculture employers. These statistics will be useful for those seeking to understand the role aquaculture can realistically play in Canadian economic development in rural coastal regions and the ways in which the jobs provided by various types of employers within this sector differ.

Given the self-imposed limitations of their study, Young and Matthews do not attempt to predict future trends in Canadian aquaculture either in the near term or the longer run. Nor are they intent on explicitly criticizing current public policies toward aquaculture and wild fisheries. But to fully appreciate the significance of the topics they discuss, such forward-looking evaluations are essential. For example, in 2010 a record sockeye run occurred in B.C. while cod landings in the recreational fishery were relatively high in selected bays in Newfoundland. If nothing else, such events should cause us to question the unidirectional approach of fisheries managers at the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Rarely are complexity and ignorance understood as final barriers or limits in fisheries science. Rather, they should spur further studies to more fully understand ocean life. Most importantly, traditional small-scale owner-operator fishermen and women should be actively encouraged rather than undermined by federal fisheries policies that favour large industrial scale operations.

However, knowledge continues to be very narrowly defined in fisheries and aquaculture debates such as those currently occurring in Canada. While lip service is paid to traditional and local ecological knowledge, scientists of all stripes tend to uphold their hegemony by insisting that fish must be analyzed on the basis of statistical and demographic techniques rather than by highlighting complex life histories and vernacular understandings of fish and other sea life by coastal citizens. There are welcome exceptions to this tendency. For example, the possible sensitivity of fish to sound (a phenomenon long recognized in non-scientific forms of ecological knowledge) is now being systematically examined by scientists, and as a result a whole acoustic ecology is being revealed under the sea.

As for Young and Matthews’s study, as comprehensive as it is, gaps remain. For example, further examination of the capital flows from abroad into B.C. salmon farms would have been useful, especially the role of Norwegian capital in playing off Canadian and Chilean salmon farmers, making use of Chile’s low labour costs and weak regulatory oversight. Such small quibbles aside, The Aquaculture Controversy is a valuable contribution to a critical Canadian policy debate—one that is bound to inform future studies on the unfolding blue revolution and its ongoing Canadian impacts.