Safety at Sea

Under a catch share system, what little income was once earned by crew members is instead redirected to licence leasing. Forced to cut costs, a fisherman faces hard choices about the amount of money he can afford to spend insuring and maintaining his boat and gear.

No small wonder that the incidence of injuries and fatalities at sea has more than doubled in the last 20 years.

Catch shares are touted for their contributions to safety because they claim to prevent races for fish that can send desperate crews racing out into bad weather, hoping to catch fish before a fishery is closed.

In a dangerous twist, however, we have seen poorly-maintained fleets venture out into rough conditions to take advantage of fleeting spikes in market prices, as higher sale prices mean more money for anyone who can land a fish at the right time.

The shrinking fleet size has had other unforeseen consequences for safety at sea as well:

It's quite rare to see another boat out there now

whereas we would have been probably in sight of 2 or 3 [boats] even 10 or 15 years ago. And that's a real point; it's really reduced the vessels that can help each other, which is where most of the aid for fishermen comes from. The Coast Guard comes in extreme cases but most of it's handled within the fishing fleet when a guy needs help.

Shrinking Fleets, Shuttered Communities

As deep pockets accumulate quota and commercial fishing becomes unaffordable for many fishermen,
fewer vessels can now afford to fish.

GRAPH: Active halibut vessels before and after catch share implementation, 1988-2012. Quota transfers were not allowed until the close of the 1992 season.

Sources: International Pacific Halibut Commission (1988-2012) Annual Reports; Nelson Bros Fisheries Ltd (2013 and 2006) Analysis of Commercial Fishing Licence, Quota, and Vessel Values.


Since quota transfers began, the halibut fishery has experienced a precipitous decline in vessel participation - a pattern that is borne out in other catch share fisheries as well. Though some fleet reduction is to be expected when catch shares are implemented, even fishery managers were unable to anticipate the halibut fishery's continued decline.

As fishermen retire or move out of the industry, they often sell their vessels, licences, and quota. While some of these licences and quota have been bought back by DFO for redistribution to First Nations, many others have been sold to the highest bidder. As a result, those with greater access to resources have begun to accumulate licences and quota, driving purchase and lease prices ever higher.

In our village you can really see it.

When quotas came in, especially the halibut, it just decimated - the quality of the boats just went downhill. And guys just passed off their quotas to the next guy, and then all of a sudden there's nobody at home with a quota. And all their boats and everything just die in the village. They bring their boats to the next bay and just let them dry up and disappear.

Various forms of commercial fishing have supported BC's coastal communities for thousands of years. But with licences and quota being bought up by fish companies and deep-pocketed individuals, that revenue stream is being lost.

Reduced access to fish has led to loss of infrastructure to support fisheries, further shrinking both local fleets and their communities. Coastal communities used to benefit from their adjacent resources. Today just about every fishing community on the coast is experiencing declining populations, increased unemployment rates, and shuttered local businesses.


INTERACTIVE: Licence ownership in BC's commercial fisheries. Note how the ownership of licences and quotas has shifted from coastal communities to urban centres, particularly in catch share fisheries.

Click cities and the graphs below to explore the data. Reset All


Source: DFO Licensed Fishing Vessel Directory - Pacific Region, as of March 16, 2014.


This loss of local industry hits rural coastal communities hard. According to BC Stats, every thousand dollars of local fishing expenditure generates $1,490 of local income, a $550 increase in local GDP, and $130 in government tax revenues. For every million dollars, 3.69 local jobs are created.

When it comes to the ownership [of licences and quota], we have had it stolen from these communities, from the individuals that live in these communities and it's going to continue to be stolen in the name of consolidation.

Next Section: The Future of Fisheries

Are BC's commercial fisheries beyond saving?