Can B.C. salmon farmers play a bigger role in post-pandemic economic recovery?

B.C. salmon farmers are hoping for greater inclusion in the province’s post-pandemic economic recovery plan, following the release of a new report that shows clearer government policy would trigger innovation, technology and infrastructure investments by the sector worth $1.4 billion by 2050.

The report, published by independent economics consulting firm RIAS Inc., and commissioned by the BC Salmon Farmers Association (BCSFA), noted the investments would generate $44 billion in economic output and create 10,000 new jobs. But first the provincial and federal governments need to establish a predictable policy approach.

“As an essential service, salmon farmers in B.C. played their part by not only keeping existing staff employed but by hiring additional staff to help them manage the COVID situation,” Doug Blair, president of RIAS Inc. said in a statement. “By continuing their operations, BC salmon farmers helped to cushion the negative impacts of the pandemic for more than 1,700 local vendors across B.C. that serve the sector, like fish processors, transporters, technology suppliers, boat operators, as well as local restaurants, hotels and businesses. And as we weather the second wave of this pandemic, the salmon farming industry remains uniquely positioned to play a critical role in B.C.’s recovery strategy – particularly in remote, coastal and Indigenous communities that are most in need at this time.”

The Vancouver Island Economic Alliance (VIEA) supported an expanded industry, pointing to a projected provincial economic decline of 6.8 per cent due to the pandemic.

According to the BCSFA the industry currently supports almost 7,000 direct and indirect full-time jobs.

Most of B.C.’s farmed salmon is now shipped abroad, topping B.C.’s food exports with a value of $562 million in 2019, but the sector is also prepared to supply a greater volume of food to the domestic market in the interest of provincial food security.

Conservation groups contend that salmon farms act as reservoirs for pathogens that harm wild salmon populations, many of which are at their lowest numbers on record.

While research and monitoring programs by the federal government and the industry show otherwise, the federal fisheries minister has been given a mandate to develop a transition plan by 2025 to move open-net pen farms out of provincial waters. The federal government is also in consultations with some First Nations over whether to renew salmon farm licences in the Discovery Islands.

The report states several steps are needed to address what it calls misinformation about the salmon farming industry, including a publicly-available, agreed-upon facts guide.

BCSFA executive director John Paul Fraser told Black Press Media the industry has demonstrated its resiliency during the pandemic and is hopeful for more public and government support.

“The government needs to see our efforts to connect with the public, but the government also needs to reciprocate by demonstrating confidence that the sector is safe and can grow responsibly. All we’re asking — it’s pretty simple — is read the report. Get to know some of the people. Come out and visit.

“If that happens, the signals will go from the public, to the government and back to the public. Then you’re going to see an unleashing of investment that I think could create a real powerhouse opportunity.”

The salmon farm industry holds agreements with 20 First Nations in whose territory farms operate. The report anticipates 50 new agreements could be in place by 2050. Fraser agreed with those findings.

“That’s aspirational but we feel it’s in reach. I would say anyone who’s provided information to come up with that denominator is very aware of the opportunities we currently have with Indigenous communities, and the level of interest that’s been expressed to us — perhaps quietly, but expressed to us nonetheless.”

Three First Nations leaders and the mayors of several coastal communities issued statements supporting the report and further industry growth.

The Living Oceans Society, is sceptical the industry can reach agreements among 50 coastal First Nations with the current reliance on net-pen salmon farms. Executive director, Karen Wristen, added it would be politically risky for the province to grant any new tenures amidst growing opposition from Indigenous communities, sport and commercial fishers, marine tourism businesses, unions, faith organizations and environmental organizations.

“If the salmon farming industry wants to contribute to post-pandemic economic recovery, it can start working on some land-based facilities and transition from netpens to land-based farms by 2025—just like the government promised,” Wristen said. “I would not be opposed to government incentives being offered for that kind of investment. It’s new and risky and that’s exactly the kind of game-changing investment governments should make to build back better.”

In the immediate term (by 2021), investments by BC salmon farmers will increase annual economic output across BC by $60.3 million, increase annual GDP by $48 million, create more than 430 new jobs, and generate an additional $5.8 million in annual tax revenues.

In the medium term (by 2030), if greater certainty is achieved for salmon farmers, the resulting new investments would increase economic output by $1.27 billion per year, increase GDP by $485 million per year, create 5,224 new jobs paying $381 million in wages, and generate $72.7 million in annual tax revenues.

In the longer term (by 2050), with certainty, new investments would increase economic output by $2.345 billion per year, increase GDP by $857 million per year, create more than 9,400 new jobs with wages totalling almost $693 million, and generate an additional $131.4 million in annual tax revenues.

Quinn Bender, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Prince Rupert Northern View