VIP Interview: Canada’s Fisheries Industry Looking Forward
- The Canadian fisheries industry has adapted to meet the challenges of climate change—through monitoring, selective fishing, validation and staying within quotas—to build a more sustainable industry.
- The fisheries industry needs global markets to remain open—particularly the UK and China—throughout and after COVID-19.
- Access to the resource is likely to become more difficult in the next five years because of the increasing prevalence of marine protected areas, and the fisheries industry must ensure that good, sustainable fishing can occur.
Fisheries are a renewable resource that, if properly managed, can bring wealth to individuals, companies and Canada as a whole. Before government creates sweeping policy directives, they should consult the fisheries industry so that their full impact can be understood. Protecting the environment and prosecuting the fisheries industry do not need to be mutually exclusive.
How would you characterize Canada’s fisheries industry today? What are our strengths and what do we have to build on in this area of our economy?
First of all, it is a really dynamic industry and that has been one of the things that attracts a lot of people to it. We have the perfect product—it is renewable, it is good for you, it tastes great—so the product kind of sells itself, but we are still going to have challenges.
“We have the perfect product—it is renewable, it is good for you, it tastes great.”
One of things that the industry has shown over the past 50 years is that we are adaptable, and we have been able to make the changes that we need. When overfishing and environmental issues really came to the fore in the last 20 years, the Canadian industry has been able to adapt to it, and I think we have done really well—not just the Fisheries Council of Canada but with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) as well.
“When overfishing and environmental issues really came to the fore in the last 20 years, the Canadian industry has been able to adapt to it.”
We have put in the things that we need. We have monitoring, we have validation, we stay within our quotas, and we selectively fish. What we have done is built an industry that we believe is sustainable and in fact, it has the certifications that we need through things like Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), to say that the world agrees that what we are doing is right. I think we are good on that side.
We have also addressed the need for better quality—it is a given, you better have good quality. We have done it on the boats, with refrigeration, shorter trips, and better handling. We have done it in the plants where we have better food safety and we have made some technological changes inside the plants to make them put out a really, really good product that is desired around the world. We are an export product, so that has really worked.
Going forward, I think we just have to keep on top of what trends are coming at us. We already know that marine protected areas are already well on their way, and the industry is taking a role in that as we work with DFO, but there is going to be a lot more.
“We have to look at climate change. That is going to change maybe the species, where we fish, how we fish.”
I see ethical things as really a truly big issue that is coming at us. We are very, very well positioned to deal with that, but those issues are there. We have to look at climate change. That is going to change maybe the species, where we fish, how we fish—so we better be prepared to make sure not only the industry can adapt but our management can adapt, that they have the tools to be able to do those things. To me, we have a lot of things to do but I really believe we can do them.
How has the Canadian government responded to support the fisheries industry through COVID-19? What are the priorities of the industry through and post-COVID-19?
First of all, I think everybody recognized right away that it just was not going to be business as usual. We saw our markets dry up, and we saw problems in plants. Right away, we had problems just keeping workers. There was fear after hearing that a meat plant was having a problem, because we have processing plants and it is very much the same thing. We had workers that were afraid.
I think the government was a little slow in reacting to the fact that fishing is a food product, and we did not get deemed an essential service right away. It took a few weeks—but a few weeks really did matter. Once they did declare us an essential service, it really worked well for us because then our workers had a sense that what they were doing was valuable, it matters, and it is important.
“The government was a little slow in reacting to the fact that fishing is a food product, and we did not get deemed an essential service right away.”
As companies, we had to do a lot as well to address COVID-19. We had to get the protective equipment for people, we had to set up the barriers, we had to change configuration, we had to make sure that our employees felt safe and it cost a lot.
The government has done a great job on the processing side, they were right there to help us. They announced the program the Canadian Seafood Stabilization Fund (CSSF) that helped the industry, I think they did a nice job on that.
The harvesting side was a little more difficult, the program was only announced in the last month and it closes in a couple of weeks, and we are finding people are having difficulties accessing that. But even then, the government is saying, listen, just get a number, get into the system and we are going to figure out a way to make sure it works, because their incomes are going down. There is no doubt about it, the value of products is going down—products are sitting in inventory longer than they used to, so we have some work to do on that.
Going forward, we do not know what is going to happen on the food service side. People are not going out to restaurants right now and that really is hurting our products, because we have a lot of high end, really topnotch, white tablecloth products and they cannot get out there right now.
We are making changes to get these products into retail, because seafood at retail is actually doing very well. I think people have recognized that if they cannot go out and eat seafood in a restaurant, they will have to bring it home and learn to cook—that that is a whole other story, getting people to start thinking about cooking seafood, but we are doing it. I think that will be good.
“I think people have recognized that if they cannot go out and eat seafood in a restaurant, they will have to bring it home and learn to cook.”
On the government’s reaction to COVID-19, we have to make sure those markets stay open. I think that is the biggest thing they can do. With Brexit happening right now, right in the midst of everything, we have to make sure we still have access to the UK market. There are different issues, like trade issues with China that keep raising their head—it is still an important market for us, so we have to make sure that stays open.
The government is doing a good job, they are keeping on-task of things we will need eventually. We will need those markets, and they will help us, and we will adapt. We will figure it out as an industry.
Is value addition an area for improvement and opportunity for the Canadian fisheries industry in the future?
Without a doubt. It is something that for a long time, we just took the product out of the water, stabilized it, and did what we could with it. But you are seeing value addition more and more. You are seeing the lobster guys take more steps to do things with that.
In the West Coast where I am, we are seeing value addition with salmon. It used to be all headed and gutted; you would throw out a slab of salmon into a retail store and people did not know how to deal with it. They did not know what it was. Almost all of our product now goes out as salmon fillets or portions of salmon where you can see it—you can look at it—and I think that helps. We get the bones out as much as we can, and then you do look at the value-added side things.
“Value addition is one of the things that, over time, the industry must continue to do.”
We throw away almost nothing in our company. Some of it goes to meal, some goes to bait, and we do have people who take our skins as well. Value addition is one of the things that, over time, the industry must continue to do. We have to look at that.
However, some people worry about value addition. There are social issues with some of these products, and one of them is that you need some consolidation; you need employees who are working year-round. If you have a little plant that is just stabilizing the product, they probably cannot do all of the value-added processing. They might not have cold storage to hold the product or to take the next step. And Canada is such a big country, it is not like some of the smaller countries that you have everything in a few big port cities, so that makes things more difficult.
I think that we can do more value addition, but it is going to require some thought and some work.
What would you encourage the next Fisheries Council of Canada (FCC) chair to do? What is the most urgent priority to continue promoting the development of Canada’s fisheries industry?
We are getting near the end of our five-year plan for FCC, and we are going to have to revise that. We have a great president and somebody who will try to set us in a direction that is good for everybody, but I think the new chair is going to have to herd a bunch of cats.
We have a lot of opinionated people in this industry and that new chair is going to have to keep us all on track, focused and staying above the individual little issues—because this is going to be a five-year plan. Let us look at the big questions, what we can do, and what is going to come at us. I think just corralling all the people around them is going to be the key for that.
The other thing is without a doubt, access to the resource will continue to be an issue. We see marine protected areas continuing to grow. We need to make sure that good, sustainable fishing is allowed to occur as we make these changes on bigger picture things. There is always going to be a lot of work to do on access.
“We see marine protected areas continuing to grow. We need to make sure that good, sustainable fishing is allowed to occur.”
There are going to be missing surveys for some of the fisheries out here and on the East Coast because of COVID-19. How are we going to replace that information so that we have good information to manage our fisheries? The only way we are going to get access is if we can prove that it is sustainably harvested. That is a big thing.
“There are going to be missing surveys for some of the fisheries out here and on the East Coast because of COVID-19. How are we going to replace that information so that we have good information to manage our fisheries?”
I would also say that the new chair really has to continue to let the Fisheries Council of Canada be a voice for the entire industry. I think that is really important to all of us—that we are not a bunch of disparate views from each coast, but we have a sense of oneness of everything that we put forward. I think they will do a great job. I know him, and working with Paul Lansbergen, our president, I think they will do a great job.
If you could choose to pitch to one person or group with the power to influence Canada’s fisheries industry, who would you choose, and what would you say to them to improve Canada’s fisheries industry?
“Protecting the environment and protecting fisheries do not have to be mutually exclusive.”
Without a doubt, it would have to be the Prime Minister. A lot of the policies are very high up government policies that are affecting us. My pitch to him would be very short and sweet: fisheries are a renewable resource that, if properly managed, can bring wealth to individuals, companies and Canada as a whole. Before you make broad sweeping policy statements, please vet them with the industry, so that at least we can give you a heads up of the impact, because in saving something we want to make sure that we can continue to bring some economic wealth to Canada. Protecting the environment and protecting fisheries do not have to be mutually exclusive.