Federal inaction means West Coast harvesters still flounder with unfair fishing regulations, says a parliamentary committee.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada faces a wave of criticism in a recent report by the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans (FOPO), which reiterated a call to equalize fishing policy on the coasts.

For the second time in five years, the committee is pushing the fisheries department (DFO) to make changes so only Canadian fish harvesters with actual “boots on deck” of a boat can own fishing licences or quota on the West Coast.

The key recommendation is one of 19 stemming from a recent study by the committee on the effect corporate and foreign ownership of commercial licences and quotas is having on Canadian fisheries.

On the Pacific coast, there are no limits around ownership of commercial licences or quota which unlock entry to fisheries and profits in the sector.

Yet in the Maritimes, DFO has crafted regulations to limit corporate control and ensure licences remain in the hands of independent harvesters, so fishers and coastal communities benefit from the industry.

Speculation and skyrocketing prices for commercial fishing licences and quota (a share of allowable catch) is locking out independent operators from making a living in B.C. waters, said harvesters, First Nations, academics and unions testifying at the committee.

Meanwhile, corporations, processors, foreign and domestic investors, or retired fishers benefit, while active fish harvesters must increasingly lease licences and quota at prices or under contract conditions that are unsustainable or put them in the red.

The risks of foreign ownership and corporate concentration must be addressed before the nation’s fish and seafood is controlled from boardrooms, here or abroad, rather than by Canadian fishers, the committee stated in its report.

Canada's East Coast regulations are geared to limit corporate control and protect coastal fishing communities while West Coast harvesters still unfairly flounder under a different set of rules, a parliamentary #FOPO report stresses. #DFO #CanPoli

“The resources in Canada’s oceans should benefit, first and foremost, the Canadian coastal communities that depend on them.”

DFO should develop new criteria around Canadian ownership of licences and transition to the new system in seven years or less, the committee recommended.

The need to tackle longstanding concerns about the lack of transparency around who owns and controls commercial licences, quota, and vessels and the need for a public registry was also highlighted in the report.

Aside from making it impossible to determine the level of concentration in the industry, poor transparency means the sector could be targeted by criminal elements, the committee heard.

Not knowing who owns key resources makes Canadian fisheries vulnerable to foreign state actors, organized crime, and money launderers, Peter German, a former RCMP deputy commissioner, told the committee.

As a result, the committee also recommended the sales and purchases of vessels, licences and quota, involving lawyers representing anonymous clients, be scrutinized by FINTRAC, the federal intelligence agency monitoring suspicious financial activity.

In addition, deals that might result in an individual or corporation acquiring 20 per cent or more of any given fisheries market should trigger a review by the Canadian Competition Bureau, the committee said.

Results from a DFO survey — aimed at determining who benefits directly or indirectly from access to commercial fisheries — was released in September after committee hearings were already finished.

Results suggest the level of foreign licence holders or vessel owners on the West Coast is minimal at around two per cent based on responses from 80 per cent of those that held 88 per cent of those licences, the survey report stated.

However, before the results were released, the survey was roundly criticized as “flawed” by fish harvesters and many others testifying to the committee. The nationality of someone who “holds” a commercial licence or quota doesn’t translate into who actually “owns” or controls them, critics stressed.

Processors, corporations and investors — foreign or domestic — with deep pockets can own licences and quota that they then lease to a Canadian fish harvester or employee.

Though the harvester becomes the “holder” of a licence or quota, they can still be locked into lower fish prices or supply agreements with seafood buyers or processors that own those items.

How much quota or licences are concentrated in corporate hands will remain unclear if companies don’t have to declare ownership of those assets but can seemingly distribute them to be ‘held’ by harvesters or boat operators, Sonia Strobel, CEO of Skipper Otto Community Supported Fishery, told the committee.

In the survey report, DFO acknowledged the complexity and range of leasing practices wasn’t captured “as the intended scope was focused to provide a snapshot of foreign ownership of the named licence holder only.”

In addition to a general call for DFO to develop policies to buoy the next generation of fishers, especially in Indigenous communities, the committee recommended Ottawa create a specific fisheries finance agency, similar to Farm Credit Canada, within five years.

The new report’s findings mirror the outcome and many recommendations from a 2019 investigation by the committee into fisheries regulations and equity issues on the Pacific Coast.

There was a disappointing lack of progress over the past five years on a “made in B.C.” plan reflective of East Coast policies that limit corporate control and stipulate only active harvesters can possess licences, the report stated.

Only a single employee had been specifically dedicated to advance a complex set of goals, the committee noted, stressing DFO must prioritize enough resources and staff to move forward with the recommendations.

There is risk tied to inaction on foreign ownership and concentration in fisheries, the report concluded, citing questions posed by Greg Pretty, president of the Fish, Food, and Allied Workers union.

“Will the future of our fishery be vibrant and sustainable—composed of thousands of small businesses in the water that continue to contribute to the rich fabric of culture and our country’s economy?” Pretty asked.

“Or will it be controlled by a small handful of companies, processed offshore or internationally, removing the wealth of our sustainable resources from the adjacent communities that depend on them, in order to serve another country’s bottom line?”

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

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