By Scott Wallace, senior research scientist
Few Canadians know that the largest fishery on B.C.'s coast is for Pacific hake. Although it's a food-grade fish, the federal government granted permission last week, for the first time in nearly 30 years, to allow catches to be converted into fish meal.
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Hake is a schooling fish related to the more commonly known haddock and cod. The Canadian hake fishery this year is allowed to catch 114,000 metric tonnes, equivalent to about a billion meal servings. Over the past decade most of B.C.'s hake was sold to Russia, but an economic embargo of Canadian products into Russia means B.C.'s hake can't be sold to this market. Because the B.C. hake industry products and market are not diversified, the solution for this year's catch is to sell it to a reduction plant, where food-grade hake is ground to make fish meal, most likely for farmed Atlantic salmon.
Under the Fisheries Act, it is illegal to use fish in this manner unless the fisheries minister grants an exemption. On July 24, Fisheries and Oceans Minister Gail Shea granted such an exemption to the hake fishery, allowing it to convert about half its allocation— or 55, 000 tonnes (equivalent of roughly 55,000 pickup trucks full of fish) — into food for other agricultural products.
Although the amount of fish being taken might be sustainable from a biological yield perspective, the conversion of food fish to fish feed is unsustainable in a resource-constrained world where over a billion people live in extreme poverty. While the Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans stated that the exemption is a one-year exceptional measure, we should not permit this type of fishing in Canadian waters under any circumstance. With the price of fish meal continually climbing, converting fish into meal is an increasingly attractive proposition for fisheries — first hake, then herring, dogfish or any fish that isn't selling in the global market.
Hake stocks are healthy and the fishery is well-managed, with a Marine Stewardship certification issued last year. So does it matter what the end use is? Whether the fish is eaten directly or converted into fish meal and then fed back to another fish will make no difference to the marine ecosystem. Globally, however, direct human consumption of food is the most efficient use in the midst of limited resources. The conversion into fish meal requires additional energy: fossil fuels to grow, produce and transport the end product. The amount of fish being granted an exemption could produce 500 million seafood servings. (Canada health guide suggests that 75 grams of seafood make up a serving.)
Seafood is often seen as a luxury product, but many high-volume global fish products are sold for pennies per kilogram. Pacific hake will be sold at 18 cents a kilogram this summer (compared to halibut, which sells for at least 100 times more).
While it is unfortunate that a sustainable fishery has been economically affected by an international trade issue beyond its control, it does highlight a major problem with how we consume seafood in Canada and in developed countries in general. Hake should be a good bet for Canadian and global seafood markets. The U.S. fishery, which can catch three times as much as Canada's, has a diversified fishery whose products are sold for human consumption. If caught and processed properly, hake is firm and sweet and tasty when prepared with garlic and olive oil.
The minister made the exemption without public discussion. It was opposed by the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations, who were not consulted despite the federal government's legal obligation to do so.
The future benefits of letting the fish simply swim for a year and contribute to the ecosystem in which the fishery is embedded were never considered. The minister's decision should be revoked and public discussion should be made an essential part of decisions involving these kinds of exemptions.