Seafood production contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to B.C.’s economy each year, with 2016 reaching over $400 million. But while the sector’s value continues to grow, balance must be achieved between environmental sustainability and the economic wellbeing of those who work in the industry.
Authors: Fiona Beaty and Karin Bodtker, Coastal Ocean Research Institute, an Ocean Wise initiative
Reviewer: Jim McIsaac, Executive Director, T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation
Banner Photo Credit: Ocean Wise
In 2016, gross domestic product (GDP) from B.C.’s seafood sector reached $415 million, the highest value in the last two decades. This market value includes production from commercial fishing and aquaculture, but not seafood processing. Over the last two decades, real GDP from aquaculture and commercial fisheries combined has fluctuated between $225 million and $400 million (Figure 1).
Further, exports of B.C. seafood products coming from commercial fisheries and aquaculture operations have increased by 10 percent or more for each year between 2013 and 2016. B.C.’s top export, cultured Atlantic salmon, places the province in the top four global producers of this product, behind Chile, Norway, and the United Kingdom. The increasing value of seafood exports reflects a growing demand for B.C. fish products outside of B.C. that will continue to expand as global population expands.
Increasing exports and stable or increasing productivity are positive signs for the seafood sector from an economic perspective. However, positive trends in GDP and the value of exports do not necessarily coincide with improvements in social wellbeing, nor do they reflect changes in the environmental sustainability of the sector. Considering the social, cultural, and environmental perspectives raises questions about whether seafood production is sustainably supporting livelihoods and healthy communities, and whether this level of extraction from the ocean is ecologically sustainable. (See articles in the Sense of Place and Wellbeing theme for discussions on social and community wellbeing. Find indicators of employment in the Coastal Development and Livelihoods theme.) Determining what may be a sustainable production level in ever-changing ecosystems and social systems is the task ahead for the sector, its managers, and consumers alike. Industry has made and continues to make considerable efforts toward ecological sustainability, and consumers are increasingly demanding to know where their seafood comes from, who fishes it, and how sustainably it is fished.
Why is it important?
B.C.’s commercial fishing and aquaculture production contributes hundreds of millions of dollars annually to the province’s economy and GDP (Figure 1). GDP is used here as a measure of the sector’s size and changes measure growth or shrinkage. However, even in recent years of high production, B.C.’s seafood sector comprises less than 0.2 percent of total provincial GDP. This is down from 0.6 percent in 2005, which reflects a broader shift in economic importance away from resource extraction industries and to service-based industries.
Interpreting the fluctuations in seafood production in the last few decades requires context. Driven primarily by economic and conservation values, changes in the management and structure of B.C.’s commercial fisheries, in particular the groundfish sector, over this time include:
- Mandatory 100 percent electronic or observer monitoring at-sea, and dockside monitoring of groundfish species by all gear types.
- Higher accountability for what and how much is caught.
- The adoption of Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs).
- Spatial protection including Rockfish Conservation Areas, frozen footprint for bottom trawl gear, and integrated Marine Spatial Planning.
- The implementation of the Sustainable Fisheries Framework (SFF). The SFF includes policies such as the precautionary approach and ecosystem-based management.
The consequences of these changes are reflected in the industry’s economic performance as well as other aspects including employment (see Seafood-related Employment article in the Livelihoods theme) and community and social wellbeing (see Fishing benefits coastal communities article in the Sense of Place and Wellbeing theme).
Attention to conservation and environmental impact has also confronted the aquaculture industry, and it suffers criticism on several fronts. Ocean health issues related to finfish aquaculture in particular include habitat conversion and pollution of the marine environment where farms are located, disease and parasites transfer from farmed organisms to wild ones, escape of farmed species threatening wild populations, and a feed regime that depends on wild-forage fish and uses more food energy than it produces. Globally, the salmon aquaculture industry has made steady progress in reducing its reliance on feed originating from wild fish, and the industry in B.C. is taking steps to reduce their environmental impact.
Regulation of the industry passed from provincial to federal hands in 2010, which led to new regulations. However, concerns remain that increasing production levels may be unsustainable due in part to environmental impacts.
What is the current status?
While GDP measures economic productivity, harvest is a measure of the biomass removed from the ecosystem. Seafood sector harvest reached 292 tonnes in 2016, the highest value since 2005 (Figure 2). The past three decades of change in the sector are reflected in the balance between aquaculture and wild-caught product. Aquaculture harvest has been increasing, almost without exception, since the 1980s when the salmon farming industry began in earnest, whereas the amount of wild seafood harvest has fluctuated (Figure 2). After considerable volatility for several decades, wild harvests – generally cyclic with larger climate cycles – have remained stable since 2007, with a recent uptick in 2016. Wild-caught fishery dependence upon a resource that varies from year to year helps to explain the greater volatility in harvest levels.
The value of total fish products exported from B.C. has risen steeply in the last three years (Figure 1) to $1.3 billion. These products went to 80 different markets, with the biggest buyers being the United States, China, Japan, Ukraine, and Hong Kong. The top five seafood exports were farmed Atlantic salmon, crabs, hake, shrimp and prawns, and herring.
Changing oceanic conditions associated with climate change pose a threat to the sustainability of B.C.’s seafood sector. We are witnessing changes including ocean acidification, increased sea surface temperature, and increased storm intensity and frequency. One example is the warm water “Blob” off the coast from 2013 to 2016, which prompted unpredicted changes in species distribution and abundance. A direct consequence of changing conditions including increased ocean temperature and acidity, for example, is diminished growth rates of salmon and some shellfish. An indirect consequence of climate change is the projected increase in frequencies of harmful algal blooms (HABs) as ocean temperatures warm and storm intensity and frequency rises. HABs make shellfish and farmed species unsafe for human consumption.
What can you do?
Individual and Organization Actions:
- Know your fisherman: choose seafood options that support local fishermen and sustainable harvesting.
- Support B.C.’s buy local program
- Purchase and eat sustainable seafood. Learn more at:
- Demand improvements to seafood labelling and traceability requirements: SeaChoice, ThisFish
- Participate in citizen science efforts that support oceanic monitoring (e.g., Pacific Salmon Foundation’s Salish Sea Marine Survival Project Citizen Science Program and while on the ocean use the OceanSmart app to report interesting ecosystem events).
Government Actions and Policy:
- Undertake more frequent stock assessments to ensure annual quotas do not exceed sustainable harvest levels.
- Support investment in research for fisheries, sustainable aquaculture techniques and institutions.
- Support comprehensive monitoring of ocean socio-ecological systems, including environmental conditions to facilitate HAB detection and response.