On July 26, 2023, Diane Lebouthillier was appointed as the new Minister of Fisheries, Oceans, and the Canadian Coast Guard.
The news came shortly after Joyce Murray, Lebouthillier’s predecessor, announced that she would not seek reelection, paving the way for a fresh leadership perspective in DFO.
Lebouthillier, now the sixth to hold the title under Justin Trudeau, steps into the role with a weighty responsibility on her shoulders; the Canadian commercial fishing industry is at a crossroads on several fronts.
As Lebouthillier assumes her new role, fish harvesters and coastal communities will look to her to tackle hugely consequential issues and spearhead positive change in the industry.
Who is Diane Lebouthillier?
Diane Lebouthillier is the Member of Parliament for Gaspésie—Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine; a riding which covers the Magdalen Islands Archipelago, forming a maritime community with two municipalities.
Before becoming the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans, and the Canadian Coast Guard, Lebouthillier held the title of Minister of National Revenue.
During her time in that role, Lebouthillier notably oversaw the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), which managed the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) program during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prior to her career in politics, Lebouthillier was a social worker, managing clients out of the CLSC in Chandler where she worked with long-time Member of the National Assembly (MNA), Georges Mamelonet.
The Minister’s Role
As Minister, Lebouthillier will oversee the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).
Among other responsibilities, DFO’s mandate dictates that the department must “work with fishers, coastal, and Indigenous communities to enable their continued prosperity from fish and seafood.”
This crucial aspect of the mandate places significant emphasis on collaborating with various stakeholders to ensure that fishing practices are economically viable and supportive of the well-being of local communities.
Currently, many commercial fish harvesters in British Columbia are confronting challenges that jeopardize their livelihoods, coastal communities, and way of life.
It will be up to the new minister to address these issues and engage with stakeholders to find a way forward.
DFO Decisions Not Based in Science
Commercial fish harvesters have faced significant negative impacts due to a series of fishery closures and delays by DFO, many of which have disregarded science.
Most notable were the 2021 Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative (PSSI) closures, in which a sweeping decision led to the blanket closure of 79 salmon fisheries in British Columbia.
DFO made this massively impactful decision without consulting its own biologists or managers, and left harvesters completely uninformed about the closures until the broad public announcement.
The consequences of these closures left commercial salmon harvesters and coastal communities grappling with financial devastation and a severely crippled outlook for future viability.
At the time, a coalition of 13 fish harvester organizations (including UFAWU-Unifor) expressed deep concern regarding the closures — pointing out the lack of a mechanism to reopen the fisheries should salmon stocks become abundant.
The coalition also emphasized that simply reducing fisheries would not address the underlying salmon crisis, which has been spurred on by the impacts of climate change such as wildfires and flooding, and an unprecedented explosion of pinniped populations.
Since the PSSI closures, commercial harvesters have witnessed the deeply concerning trend of decisions made without regard for stock assessment or science-based rationale, in the form of flawed Marine Protected Area (MPA) closures, unjustified cuts to herring fisheries, recent unwarranted Chinook fishery delays, and more.
Commercial harvesters are desperately seeking a change in approach by DFO, one that prioritizes rational, responsible, and science-based decision-making.
Foreign Ownership of Canadian Commercial Fishing Licenses and Quotas
Foreign ownership and beneficial interest in Pacific Region fisheries are an open secret among those in the fishing industry.
In 2018, $60 million in licenses and quotas were sold, with foreign purchasers responsible for a staggering $30 million of that amount. More recently, an offshore investor singularly purchased $50 million in groundfish quota.
Currently, a mere 1.2% of quota holders own 50% of the groundfish quota, raising serious questions about lack of fair distribution and its implications.
One impact of these stark figures is that DFO and First Nations have found themselves in direct competition with foreign investors to acquire licenses and quotas in order to meet reconciliation objectives.
For many independent Canadian harvesters, the inflationary effect of offshore investment means licenses and quotas have become well out of financial reach. As a result, commercial harvesters have been forced to witness the benefits of Canadian fisheries flow away from their communities.
Until foreign ownership is addressed, coastal communities will continue to experience a painful economic drain as offshore investors profit from Canadian fish.
Owner Operator Licensing Policy
To ensure that the benefits of commercial fisheries flow to the hardworking harvesters actively engaged in fishing, the West Coast needs to adopt an Owner Operator licensing policy.
Such a policy could target inshore fisheries, protecting the livelihoods of small-scale fishers and supporting Canadian harvesters who contribute directly to fishing operations.
In 2007, the East Coast implemented a successful Owner Operator Licensing policy called PIIFCAF (Policy for Preserving the Independence of the Inshore Fishing Fleet in Atlantic Canada). The policy allowed a seven-year transition period during which investor license and quota holders had the opportunity to divest themselves of licenses and quotas, recovering their investment.
As a result of the PIIFCAF policy, the Atlantic Region has experienced significant growth — with landed value in dollars increasing by 76% and fish harvester incomes rising by 71%.
In contrast, the West Coast marked only a 29% increase in landed value and a 26% rise in fisher incomes.
Labour Force and Labour Force Adjustment
Policies addressing climate change, environmental protection, and reconciliation have been designed and implemented with little concern for fish harvesters. As a result, fishers, particularly those in salmon fisheries, have faced severe impacts.
When the PSSI unexpectedly closed 60% of salmon fisheries, many fish harvesters experienced financial distress after investing heavily in gear and preparations for the expected openings.
Frustratingly, no support was planned for these affected fish harvesters — leading to license losses, mortgage defaults, and mental health struggles.
The PSSI buyback process does little to provide relief, mainly purchasing licenses from exceptionally desperate or inactive fishermen, while neglecting those who lease or fish for companies and those without licenses.
A Labour Force Adjustment Program for displaced salmon harvesters, for either providing support during industry restructuring or assistance for transitioning to new careers, would lessen the harm to fish harvesters and their coastal communities as these policies are enacted.
While other industries in the province have received support to cope with climate change impacts and income reductions from environmental protection policies, the fishing industry has yet to receive any financial assistance at all.
Navigating Areas Declared Closed by First Nations Exercising Self-Determination
Recently, questions pertaining to areas declared closed by First Nations exercising Self-Determination and Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs) have arisen and become a pressing source of uncertainty among commercial fish harvesters.
These questions, regarding procedure, scope, authority and access within these areas remain unaddressed by DFO — opening the door to potential conflict and causing significant concern for the commercial fishing community.
DFO has pointed toward relationship building between First Nations and the Commercial Harvest Sector in order to negotiate an agreeable path forward. However, these two sectors are not entirely distinct from one another; they overlap greatly.
The existence of productive relationships which are already well established does not remove DFO’s obligation to provide structure and clear communication of regulations and protocols with regard to fishery access.
It is imperative that DFO offer guidelines and communication quickly to achieve a balanced resolution for all stakeholders.
Unaddressed FOPO Recommendations
In 2019, the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans (FOPO) released a report titled “West Coast Fisheries: Sharing Risks and Benefits.”
Comprised of 20 recommendations, the report was created to address many of the challenges facing both fisheries and commercial fishermen.
The 64-page report aimed to tackle “the lack of transparency of the fisheries management framework; the barriers new harvesters face in entering the fisheries; the marginal viability of many fishing enterprises; and, the inequitable sharing of risks and benefits across industry participants.”
Despite a call to action from the commercial fishing community following its release, the response to FOPO’s recommendations from the DFO has been lackluster.
The responsibility of transforming these recommendations into actionable change now rests in the hands of Minister Lebouthillier.
The commercial fishing industry is facing a broad and difficult range of issues including DFO’s politics-based decision-making, foreign ownership, a lack of labour force adjustment, and much more.
But, amid these challenges, the appointment of a new Fisheries Minister presents an opportunity for change, and a chance to tackle these issues with fresh vision.
Lebouthillier has the power to steer the commercial fishing industry toward a brighter future for fishers and coastal communities alike.
With the boundless optimism of fish harvesters, our hopes are high.