A federal fisheries committee is considering changes to the quota and licence system for West Coast fishers.
Over 40 fish harvesters spoke on the issue at a pair of meetings in November. Ken Hardie, MP for Fleetwood-Port Kells and a member of the standing committee for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, held the meetings ahead of a federal fisheries policy study due in February.
“Our view so far is that all of the players have acted in good faith. The people who purchased quota have done so with their money looking for an investment but at the same time we see the cultural and social problems that have emerged because the free market system has balanced things a certain way,” Hardie said.
“If you follow the money, the money isn’t sticking to places where the social and cultural issues could be nourished if there was better sharing. This is what we’ve seen so far but we need to confirm that.”
The federal government is currently amending the Fisheries Act, and the DFO committee responsible for reviewing the act decided the West Coast quota and licence system needed further study after hearing testimony from young fishers last May.
While changes to the licence and quota system are possible, time is limited. The House of Commons rises in June for summer break, and then the federal elections begin.
But Hardie said the all-party committee has dedicated a whole month to the West Coast quota and licence system.
“We want to see what we can do to get to the bottom of this,” he said.
While time may be running out for new legislation, Hardie said regulatory changes could be made quite easily.
The committee has already heard several about challenges the current system poses to West Coast fishers: fish harvesters can’t compete with corporations when it comes to buying licenses and quota; when fishers lease quota or a licence at the beginning of the season the price is based on forecasted landed value, and if the value drops the fisher takes all the risk; high lease rates often doesn’t leave enough money left over to pay for professional crew members and boat maintenance; multiple fishing licenses are stacked, or married, together making it expensive and its difficult to acquire single licenses.
In an early report from Hardie’s office, the West Coast system is compared with the East Coast and Alaska, where the owner-operator policy is applied. This policy requires the licence owners to be on their vessel when they fish. In B.C., licenses and quotas can by owned by fish processors and investors who then lease them out.
“The total value of B.C. fishery is very low compared to the total value of Alaska, so what’s going on there?” Hardie said. “Is it a matter of regulation, are there things that the federal government needs to adjust? Or is it the relationship between quota owners, fishers, the processors, etc.?”
Not everyone agrees that regulatory changes are needed. Christina Burridge, executive director of the BC Seafood Alliance, said there’s always room for discussion, but she doesn’t think it’s possible to transfer East Coast policies to the West Coast.
“We have a completely different history and evolution of fisheries management on this coast going back more than 100 years,” Burridge said. “I can’t tell you how frustrated I am with this concept of the underperformance of B.C. fisheries as compared to Atlantic Canada or to Alaska is. You cannot simply take landed value, and draw that conclusion, it depends entirely on the species mix.”
Hardie is aware that some people are concerned they’re going to blow up the old system and create something entirely new, but says the committee is looking to get the facts, consider options, and then consult with everyone across the board.
Another proposed change is fair-share leasing. A board made up of fish harvesters, licence/quota holders and deckhands would set the maximum leasing percentage at the beginning of the season. For example, they could require that half the profits goes to the fish harvester and half go to the licence quota holder, meaning both parties would split the risks.
“I actually doubt that it would be feasible to implement it,” Burridge said. “Just as you can’t say that to a restaurant owner that the staff must get 50 per cent, you couldn’t say that in fishing business either.”
“That said, I do think there’s room, and most of my members have expressed willingness to have discussions about how leasing works.”
However people feel about moving to an owner-operator system or other possible changes on the West Coast, the fisheries committee is looking for input.
Hardie invites people to listen to the hearings in Ottawa through http://www.ourcommons.ca/Committees/en/FOPO and click on the ‘Participate’ button at the top of the page. Submissions and comments are welcome at e-mail address: Fopo@parl.gc.ca
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Shannon Lough | Editor
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