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Trevor Hancock: Our fisheries are as badly managed as our forests

Here is an astounding statistic: Of the roughly 196,000 tonnes of wild seafood harvested by B.C.
A fishing boat passes a Canadian Coast Guard helicopter near Fisherman’s Wharf. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Here is an astounding statistic: Of the roughly 196,000 tonnes of wild seafood harvested by B.C. fishers in 2018, worth about $476 million, around 85 per cent is exported, Marc Fawcett-Atkinson reported in an article in The National Observer in September.

Meanwhile, “like most of Canada, [B.C.] imports between 70 and 90 per cent of the seafood British Columbians eat, according to federal data.”

That seems to me more than a bit crazy; it may make some sort of weird economic sense, but does it strike you as common sense?

This and much else herein about the B.C. fishery came from what I think of as “the other Suzuki Foundation” — the T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation. (Actually, for historical accuracy, they were the original Suzuki Foundation, and the better-known David Suzuki Foundation had to get permission to use the name.)

Tatsuro “Buck” Suzuki was born on the Fraser River to a family of Japanese-Canadian fishermen in 1915. While initially interned along with other Japanese-Canadians in 1941, he was later recruited as as an intelligence officer by the British Army.

He helped to investigate war crimes in India and Singapore, before returning to B.C. in 1947. Once home, he played a major role in reconciling Japanese-Canadian fishermen with the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union (UFAWU).

He remained an activist in the union and worked to protect fish habitat until he died in 1977. The foundation was set up by members of the UFAWU in 1981 to continue his legacy.

The foundation is committed not only to protecting the fish and their habitat, but the fish harvesters and their communities. Their vision is “a future of abundant, sustainable fisheries and healthy ecosystems that support thriving coastal communities in B.C.”

Many of those communities, of course, are First Nations communities, with generations of experience in managing and harvesting the ocean’s bounty.

In a presentation to Conversations for a One Planet Region in February 2019, Jim McIsaac, the executive director of the foundation noted: “Fisheries are arguably the most sustainable food source on our planet – we don’t have to water or feed them, weed or till the soil, add fertilizer or pesticides, we just have to harvest sustainably.”

And wild fish, the foundation points out on its website, “is local, sustainable, and healthy food.” But oddly “this is often overlooked in the creation of fisheries and food policy, in marine governance processes, and in environmental activism.”

Along with Ecotrust Canada and others, the foundation is one of the key players in the Fisheries for Communities network, which brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous fish harvesters, small businesses, fishmongers, chefs, restaurateurs, fishing families, community organizations and citizens.

Collectively, the website states, they have “grown tired and frustrated watching the many social, cultural, and economic benefits of our fisheries increasingly flowing to outside investors and large scale global corporations at the cost of local fishing families and communities.”

According to a 2018 report by the foundation and Ecotrust Canada, this is the result of “a conscious policy choice to corporatize and consolidate … (which) has concentrated economic gains in the hands of a few investors” – and they don’t even need to be in the fishing business.

The federal policy, the report says, is the antithesis of factors found in the world’s most successful fisheries, including requiring that licences or quotas be held by owner-operators; preventing processing or non-fishing companies from owning licences or quotas; not allowing the leasing, trading or sale of quota to non-harvesters; and managing the fishery with harvesters (who must be members of a cooperative or fish harvester organization) and their community.

The neglect of B.C.’s coastal fishing communities is not confined to the federal government, although it is the principal player. In speaking with The National Observer, Jim McIsaac noted, “The pre-election Stronger B.C. report didn’t mention fisheries, seafood, ocean, marine or coastal. It could have been written for Saskatchewan. Very surprising for a coastal province.”

So, if like me, you think we need a vibrant and sustainable local fishery and that it should be a priority to provide healthy wild seafood for local consumption, you may want to check out and support the work of the T. Buck Suzuki Foundation and the Fisheries for Communities network.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy