« July 2008 Table of Contents
International Sourcing: Western Canada
Region expands seafood production beyond salmon
By Nicholas Gill
July 01, 2008
Almost 17,000 miles of Pacific coastline and thousands of
freshwater lakes and streams make Western Canada one of the
most vibrant and productive fishing grounds on the planet. The
region is the driving force behind Canada's prosperity: Mineral
wealth dominates the economy, yet seafood is a steadily growing
industry employing more than 15,000 people and is the No. 1
food export. British Columbia is the country's third-largest
seafood-producing province after Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.
In 2006, B.C. seafood products were shipped to 70 countries and
accounted for a total export value of $987 million.
Aquaculture has become one of the fastest-growing industries
in Western Canada, mainly due to farmed salmon. Increased
consumer demand, particularly in the United States, paired with
the decline of wild fish stocks, has fueled the sector's
growth. In 2006, the value of seafood products in British
Columbia reached $788.8 million and the wholesale value
increased 5 percent to $1.262 billion, with more than 50
percent of the value coming from farmed products.
The region's wild landings have dropped in the past few
years. In 2006, landings were down 8 percent from the year
before, according to the most recent data available from the
Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). Although landings
were down, commercial fisheries still accounted for 72 percent
of British Columbia's overall seafood production and 46 percent
of the total value.
Groundfish, particularly hake and halibut, made up roughly
half of the region's total harvest in 2006, which reached
almost 150,000 metric tons, and about a quarter of both
wholesale ($302 million) and landed ($155 million) values.
Five species of Pacific salmon are commercially harvested in
British Columbia, with sockeye, pink, chum, chinook and coho
contributing 11 percent of the wild harvest in 2006. The
region's wild salmon landings dropped 14 percent to about
23,500 tons in 2006, although this is partly attributed to
being an off year for pink salmon returns. Thanks to sockeye,
the 2006 salmon season chalked up a wholesale value of $58.8
million, an increase of 76 percent from 2005.
Without question, Western Canada's seafood industry centers
on salmon. The 100 or so farms, the majority found off the B.C.
coast on the Broughton Archipelago, cannot produce fish fast
enough for market demands.
While 85 percent of the region's farmed salmon is destined
for the United States, the recent closure of the commercial and
sport chinook salmon fisheries in California and Oregon could
increase that number. Many believe salmon production could
double the 73,000 metric tons produced last year.
"There is strong and increasing demand for our product,"
says Clare Backman, the director of environmental compliance
and community relations at Marine Harvest Canada, British
Columbia's largest aquaculture company, which controls
approximately half of the region's salmon farms. "There's no
unsold inventory. Production growth has slowed due to
restricted access to new southwest farm sites."
One of the biggest challenges for the industry in British
Columbia, according to Backman, is "resisting activist pressure
to discredit conventional salmon farming and influence public
policy to replace ocean cages with closed containment - an
expensive and energy-hungry technology that has so far proven
uneconomical to grow salmon."
And when there's a discussion about farmed salmon, it
usually mentions sea lice. Environmentalists claim the decline
of wild salmon and sea trout is especially high in areas where
salmon farms are located. They say the location of salmon farms
in red zones established several decades ago, areas on
important migration routes of wild salmon stocks, are exposing
immature fish to lice infestation and drastically declining
Sea lice are a naturally occurring phenomenon in salmon.
While adult salmon can handle two or three of the parasites,
they are deadly to juvenile fish. Much of the debate in Western
Canada is over whether migrating pink salmon are being harmed
by the salmon hatcheries. Salmon farmers and often the regional
governments claim that's not so, and both sides have their own
teams of scientists and are funding studies to support their
"The answer is to get the farms away from the salmon," says
Alexandra Morton, founder of the Raincoast Research Society.
"Just separate the big fish from the little fish; just like
The salmon farmers disagree.
"Sea lice, measured as a health concern for our fish, are a
comparatively low problem; far less of a cost than experienced
in Norway, Scotland and Chile," says Backman. The money B.C.
farmers spend on sea lice prevention is primarily to reduce the
potential for infecting wild salmon smolts. Fish are harvested
or treated with a therapeutant to control (kill) the lice from
March to June when juveniles are migrating to sea.
"Sea lice have little effect on populations of wild salmon
but can kill very small salmon at high infection levels," says
Backman. "It is not possible to eliminate sea lice from the
ocean as they are naturally carried by many resident wild
Western Canada faces challenges far beyond sea lice,
including the 40 percent increase of the Canadian dollar
against the U.S. dollar over the last three years.
"Since the U.S. is our largest market, we find that products
that were very successful when the Canadian dollar was 60 cents
are less competitive now," says Christina Burridge, executive
director of the B.C. Seafood Alliance. "Over time, we'll bring
our costs down and find new ways to add value. But we expect
the short term to be difficult although some companies are
diversifying their markets, particularly to meet European
"B.C. is a high-cost, low-volume producer and the costs are
getting higher (fuel is up 55 percent in three years and going
higher) while volumes are stable or declining as a result of
sustainability initiatives," says Burridge. "So the key
challenge is how to get more value from each fish. This will
require changes to the way that we manage fisheries."
Some fisheries expect to add value with the Marine
Stewardship Council's eco-label.
"In the next few months, we expect to see several fisheries
certified under the Marine Stewardship Council," says Burridge.
"B.C. sockeye, pink and chum, Pacific hake (whiting), Pacific
halibut and spiny dogfish are all in full assessment with
several others in pre-assessment."
Another product hitting the market is sablefish, or black
cod, which is mostly being sold as high-grade sashimi.
Sablefish Canada recently began selling fish from its
Vancouver Island farms, reportedly the world's first sablefish
hatchery, enabling fresh fish to reach the market on a regular
"Sablefish is a hearty but docile species, well suited to
pens," says Bruce Morton, president of Sablefish Canada. "They
are also indigenous to B.C. waters unlike the majority of B.C.
Atlantic salmon production. Also, [they have]
less interaction with wild stocks as sablefish don't mi-grate
en masse the way salmon do."
"Because of its freshness, extremely low PCB and mercury
levels, our sashimi-grade fish is presently receiving a 20
percent price premium over the wild Alaskan sablefish," says
The company will produce 500 metric tons of sablefish this
year, 1,000 metric tons in 2009 and will increase to 5,000
metric tons in the next five years. Western Canada's expanding
range of seafood products and the continued growth of niche
products are only part of the strategy for global success. As
pressure from cheaper imports from China and Latin America
mounts, increasing the number of markets should help in
attaining maximum value.
"Changes to groundfish management indicate that we might be
able to increase shelf life by a week, making our products more
competitive against tilapia and pangasius in the United States
and opening up premium whitefish markets in Europe," says
Burridge. "Similarly, reforming the salmon fishery would
increase access to high-value fresh markets, reducing the
number of fish that go to the can."
Maintaining traditional markets, namely the United States,
in the face of higher operating costs, changing economies and
increasing competition is vital to any business. Fulfilling
market demand while at the same time addressing environmental
concerns and long term sustainability are going to be key
issues for Western Canada's seafood industry in the coming
Nick Gill is an author, writer and
photographer based in
New York and Lima, Peru