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BC Politics

Feds Sidestep Law to Let BC's Biggest Fishery Sell Catch as Farm Feed

Industry asks for legal exception after Russian embargo drops bottom out of market for Pacific hake.

Christopher Pollon 5 Aug

Christopher Pollon is a Tyee contributing editor. He tweets at @C_Pollon.

The economic squeeze of a Russian trade embargo has prompted Canada to sidestep its own laws by allowing B.C.'s biggest fishery to sell thousands of tonnes of high-quality fish as slurry to feed farmed salmon and chickens.

Russia is the dominant market for B.C.'s most abundant food fish, locally known as Pacific hake -- a close relative of haddock that roams the edges of the North American continental shelf in schools comprising at least a million tonnes of biomass.

But a 2014 Russian embargo banning the purchase of many Canadian exports including seafood, imposed in response to sanctions protesting Russia's aggression in the Crimea, means that a fishery worth $40 million annually in landed value each year has lost its primary market. Ukraine has also been a big customer of hake, but can no longer afford to import it.

The lack of market diversification means B.C. fishermen and supporting industries worth an estimated $160 million annually have seen a significant slowdown since June 2014. American fishermen, who are allowed to catch three times more hake than their Canadian counterparts, are more diversified and less affected by the embargo.

Under pressure from the B.C. groundfish industry, which includes hake, the federal government announced on July 24 that it would allow about 55,000 tonnes of hake to be sold as "meal" – in spite of the federal Fisheries Act, which prohibits rendering of Canadian fish, in part to ensure it can be put to its highest value use, like human consumption.

The government said an exemption to the law would give the industry time to diversify its markets, which could entail a retooling of processors to make new products like fake crab meat (surimi) and minced hake for fish sticks and burgers.

Critics say granting exceptions in reaction to short-term demands of an industry that hasn't diversified represents a step backward, and recall a time when massive 1960s herring fisheries decimated B.C. stocks that were caught and simply ground up for lower-value, non-human uses.

"Clearly, exceptional circumstances have led to this," said Bruce Turris, a representative of hake fishermen, licence holders and processors that requested the federal exemption. "I don't believe anybody wants this to be a regular practice."

While Canada produces a lot of fish, Turris said much of it is exported because of our small population. B.C. fishermen have trouble selling even their highest-valued fish like halibut, black cod and salmon, he said, and for hake, "there just isn't the demand here."

Decades-old exemption dug up

In late June, Fisheries and Oceans Canada confirmed in a private letter to the groundfish industry that it would allow the exemption.

The letter also said the government would permit a "joint-venture" fishery to allow Canadian boats to offload B.C. hake onto a Russian-flagged factory vessel at sea, in apparent contravention of the Russian embargo.

By July 17, the government had changed its mind. "Given Canada's evolving bilateral relationship with Russia," wrote Fisheries and Oceans regional groundfish manager Neil Davis in another note to the industry, "the Government of Canada has determined that it will not support a [joint-venture] that includes the participation of a Russian vessel."

Rather than follow the process required by Canadian law to create the exemption to the Fisheries Act, which could take months, the government instead found a similar exemption to the law made in 1986 that it said never expired.

Davis's letter promised the government would close the loophole at the end of the 2015 fishing season. Fisheries and Oceans ignored repeated information requests for this story.

Reduction fisheries 'outlawed': First Nations

When First Nations represented by the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, which claim most of the hake fishing grounds off the west coast of Vancouver Island as their own territory, learned that the B.C. groundfish industry was requesting the exemption, leaders contacted Fisheries Minister Gail Shea in writing.

They reminded of her government's duty to consult before any legal changes are made that could infringe on aboriginal rights, including the harvesting of resources within their territory. The hake decision was made regardless.

The Nuu-chah-nulth are opposed in principle to using hake solely as meal or any other reduction product, based on the past experience of large-scale fisheries that decimated species like herring in B.C. waters.

"Reduction fisheries were outlawed by the Fisheries Act for good reason: to conserve and protect Canadian fisheries for human consumption," reads the letter to the minister. "This principle should not be cast aside for the short-term economic benefit of a few."

Hake as feed 'unsustainable': Wallace

The combined B.C. and U.S. allowable catch of hake each year is huge -- about 440,000 tonnes. For perspective, if that was loaded into pickup trucks lined up bumper to bumper, the ensuing traffic jam would stretch from Vancouver past Los Angeles.

Even at such extreme catch volumes, hake fisheries are considered to be within sustainable limits, repeatedly earning certification under the Marine Stewardship Council, said Scott Wallace, a marine biologist and senior research scientist at the David Suzuki Foundation.

But using hake, even in the short-term, to feed farmed salmon and battery chickens is "unsustainable," he wrote in a foundation blog in late July, particularly in a world where over a billion people live in extreme poverty. By his calculation, the total North American Pacific hake allowable catch represents more than four billion single servings of high-quality fish protein.

For that reason and more, Wallace said the hake precedent of 2015 is a red flag.

"With the price of fish meal continually climbing, the lure to simply convert fish into meal will become an increasingly attractive option for several Canadian fisheries," he wrote. "First hake, then herring, dogfish, or any other number of species having challenges being sold on the global market."  [Tyee]

Read more: Food, BC Politics

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