Prince Rupert council blames big companies for draining coastal B.C. fishing profits

'I think we've pretty well hit rock bottom,' says Wade Niesh

The city of Prince Rupert says large fishing companies — many of them foreign-owned — are draining B.C.'s coastal communities of fishing profits, and is calling on Ottawa to harmonize rules regulating the industry across the country.

The discussion came up during a council meeting Monday night, prompted by Coun. Joy Thorkelson, who is also president of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers' Union.

"Our communities are not realizing the benefits [of fishing] as are Atlantic communities,"  Thorkelson said, while introducing a motion asking the federal government to do more for fishing-dependent communities in B.C.

In Atlantic Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has policies requiring fish to be harvested by the person who holds the fishing licence — a standard known as the owner-operator policy. 

The DFO also enforces a fleet-separation policy, which means corporations cannot both harvest and process fish.

In recent months, the government has been cracking down on secret deals to sign over profits from Atlantic fisheries to larger companies.

But no such policies are in place in British Columbia, and many in Prince Rupert say jobs are being lost as a result.

'Hit rock bottom': councillor

Thorkelson said increasingly, fishing licences are held by foreign-owned companies, with few profits staying in B.C.

Others on council agreed the industry has declined dramatically over the past decade.

"I think we've pretty well hit rock bottom," said Coun. Wade Niesh.

Coun. Barry Cunningham said he wants a rule requiring that fish caught on the North Coast be processed on the North Coast, "not over in China or Taiwan or the Lower Mainland, but here in Prince Rupert." 

One of Prince Rupert's largest employers used to be Canfisco, a canning company that provided more than 500 jobs to the city of just over 11,000 people.

In 2015, canning operations were shut down by the Jim Pattison group of companies, which bought Canfisco in 1984.

The Pattison group said the change was due to dwindling demand for canned fish and inefficiencies in the industry.

But in Prince Rupert, many viewed the move as simply a large company shipping jobs out of the country.

"One person controls a bunch of [fishing] licenses and landed product when it comes here, and it's being shipped everywhere but where it should be," Cunningham said. 

"I walk the docks down on the waterfront quite a bit and you'll see the gillnet fleet in disrepair, people almost walking away from their boats because they can't afford to spend money on their boats," said Coun. Barry Cunningham.

Council unanimously voted to lobby the federal government, asking it to extend the same protections for fishing operations in place in Atlantic Canada to coastal B.C., and to ask other municipal governments to support them in their efforts.

"It's absolutely astonishing to me that the rules on the east are that much drastically different than on the West Coast," said Mayor Lee Brain.

Thorkelson said the goal is to protect jobs in B.C.

"If the working guy who's on the deck of the boat doesn't see the value of the fish... then it doesn't do much for our community, because our fishermen will always be poor," she said.

Andrew Kurjata / with files from Josh Pagé

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