Status, trend, data, and/or actions provide contradictory or inconclusive information and caution is required.

The benefits of the fishing industry in coastal communities go far beyond the economy. Fishing, particularly in smaller communities, promotes strong cultural ties, intergenerational exchange and deeper community trust, however recent changes in the industry may be threatening these intangible benefits.

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: Jenn Burt

What’s happening?


Figure 1. The Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area (PNCIMA) and Canada’s Pacific Exclusive Economic Zone.

In 2016, British Columbia’s seafood sector contributed $415 million to B.C.’s gross domestic product and provided over 10,000 jobs (see our articles on Seafood Production in the Seafood Theme and Employment in the Livelihoods Theme). However, fisheries contribute much more than the economics and jobs imply, especially in coastal communities. For example, in a 2012 assessment of the North and Central Coast’s social, economic and cultural sectors, the level of economic and cultural interest that coastal communities showed in commercial fisheries stumped analysts. The magnitude of interest in commercial fisheries dwarfed that for other economic sectors and inspired socio-economists to further investigate community ties to the seafood industry.

The resulting in-depth study, focused in the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area (PNCIMA, Figure 1), revealed that commercial fisheries not only support regional economies, but they also increase the social capital – social networks and community integrity – of coastal communities. Culture, intergenerational values, gift and trade, and lifestyle were the top values that fishermen associated with their profession. For example, in this study 20 fishermen reported gifting or trading seafood to over 2,000 people annually, an act that increased the sense of fellowship amongst fishermen, non-fishermen, and friends and families within the PNCIMA communities. Further, commercial fishermen value their occupation beyond the money-making capacity, more as a way of life linked to ecosystem and a strong sense of place. Recent trends have put these benefits and this way of life at risk.

Why is it important?


Regions with higher social capital, such as coastal communities that sustainably manage wild fisheries, are associated with improved social wellbeing, deeper community trust, long-term obligations between community members, and a higher investment in collective activities.


This can lead to a stronger sense of resource management and stewardship, better-informed fisheries management decisions, and more community investment in integrated marine planning. These community benefits, if not managed for, are at risk. As a result of efforts to improve resource sustainability and net economic benefits, commercial fisheries have contracted over the last three decades. The management tools associated with these efforts,such as private quota trading systems, have had unintended consequences, such as reducing the proportion of benefits returning to coastal communities and to small boat owner-operators.

First Nations Connections


In B.C., six percent of the population identifies as Aboriginal, but in coastal census subdivisions with populations under 1,000 (i.e., 73 smaller coastal subdivisions), 58 percent of the population identifies as Aboriginal. Stories and legends of B.C.’s coastal First Nations people often encapsulate the pervasive and strong sense of place embedded in their culture. They speak of being part of this coastal ecosystem since time immemorial, as gathering and using marine resources has always been a part of the coastal cultures.

Razor clams, North Beach Naikoon, Haida Gwaii (Photo: Sally Taylor, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2)

B.C.’s First Nations are spokespeople for fisheries and resource management as it relates to Aboriginal rights and titles. Shellfish harvesting, for example, is a lifestyle and means of subsistence that First Nations groups have employed throughout their history and harvesters often work independently on traditional territories to harvest wild shellfish. However, access to shellfish habitat is being jeopardized as the shellfish aquaculture industry grows and privatization of marine space through tenures increases. The number of clam and oyster tenures granted in B.C. doubled between 1999 and 2005, and again between 2005 and 2015. Many First Nations see the increasing number of private aquaculture tenures as a threat to traditional unrestricted access to natural resources. Marine resource privatization has critical implications for First Nations’ traditions, cultural identity, and local values associated with wild fisheries.

What is the current status?


The past three decades have seen significant changes in the management and structure of the commercial fishing industry. A shrinking commercial fishing fleet is one outcome of this restructuring. The total number of registered fishing vessels in the fleet dropped by 64 percent between 1985 and 2015 (Figure 2). The contraction in fleet size occurred almost entirely in the small boat fleet, which has been reduced by 4,144 vessels (Figure 3). With an average crew of 2.5 workers per small boat, a loss of 4,144 registered small fishing vessels means a loss of over 10,000 jobs. Even if only half of those jobs were based in coastal communities, the loss is significant.


Figure 2. The number of registered vessels in the Pacific Region commercial fishing fleet. Small boats are less than 65 feet, and big are 65 feet in length and larger. Data Source: Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Pacific Region Operations Branch


Figure 3. Small boat versus big boat fleet reduction in the Pacific Region between 1985 and 2015. Data Source: Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Pacific Region Operations Branch


A recent study claims that the way that fishing quotas have been implemented in Canada’s Pacific Region is putting an end to small boat fishermen operating out of coastal communities. The halibut fishery is one example of this. Catch shares or quotas are intended to secure access for fishermen, prevent over-competitive races for fish, and bring an element of measurable individual accountability to fishing. All fishermen landing halibut need to own or lease halibut quota. However, market value of halibut quota per pound more than tripled between 1998 and 2015 (Figure 4), essentially putting it out of reach for new entrants to the fishery. Owners of quota are not required to be active fishermen – they can lease their quota. Lease prices for halibut quota have increased over the same period, but not quite at the same rate. Quota pricing, one small piece of a very complex system, seems to point to unintended social and economic consequences of this quota management regime.


Figure 4. The market value of halibut quota (per pound) from 1998 to 2015 (not adjusted for inflation). Data Source: Analyses of Commercial Fishing Licence, Quota, and Vessel Values, prepared annually for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Pacific Region.


Overall, competition for access to halibut harvest is high among all those involved including between Canada and the United States, and within Canada among First Nations, commercial fisheries, and sport fisheries. This competition will continue to drive the value of halibut quota up, perhaps even more so if total available quota decreases. In light of the competition and market pressures, concerns for the sustainability of halibut fishermen and fisheries are understandable.

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 an independent review of fisheries licensing policies as they affect harvesters, First Nations and coastal communities in B.C.
  • Support integrated ocean management by providing resources and engaging coastal communities, First Nations and stakeholders in decision-making.
  • Support investment in research for fisheries, sustainable aquaculture techniques and institutions.
  • Support comprehensive ocean socio-ecosystem monitoring, including environmental conditions to facilitate HAB detection and response.

Additional Content and References in Full Article

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