From providing sustainable and valuable nutrition for the future of us all, to slowing climate change and playing a significant role in the economy and job creation, Canada’s farmed and wild-capture seafood industry is on the rise.
Covering 71 percent of the Earth, oceans represent life itself. From producing much of the world’s oxygen to regulating our climate, oceans are vital to our physical and economic well-being. Providing an abundant source of marine life used in medicine and as food for humans and animals, oceans are directly linked to countless jobs in transportation, biology, ecology, fishing, aquaculture, and other areas.
Developed thousands of years ago in China, Japan and Egypt, aquaculture refers to farming ocean and freshwater plants and animals for human consumption. From raising carp in the 1200s to molluscs in the 1600s, aquaculture and its many facets continue developing. In the United States, federal fish hatcheries were established in the 1870s.
In the late 1950s, Japan created the first marine shrimp hatchery and farm, followed by the development of salmon culture and catfish culture in the U.S. in the 1960s.
Wild-capture fishing, on the other hand, is one of the world’s oldest livelihoods. Indigenous peoples in Canada have been harvesting fish for millennia, and non-Indigenous Canadians have been capturing fish from our three oceans for centuries, and the industry continues to support rural, coastal and Indigenous communities today.
Compared to the wild capture side, aquaculture as a commercial initiative is relatively new – in Canada, only about 40 years old. Looking internationally, even countries such as Norway only began salmon farming in the 1970s.
Canada’s Blue Economy Strategy 2040
Established in 1915, the Fisheries Council of Canada (FCC) serves as the voice of the nation’s fish and seafood industry, representing the wild capture side. With a membership ranging from small to large companies and many Indigenous businesses, the FCC is a proud advocate of the sector, and the crucial role the sector plays in Canada’s overall economy.
Partnering with the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance (CAIA), a membership organization representing the nation’s seafood farmers coast-to-coast, both organizations are spearheading the Blue Economy Strategy. The vision of the strategy is for “Canada to be a Global Top 3 Best Sustainable Fish & Seafood Producer.”
Sustainable growth targets
Combining their efforts, the FCC and CAIA have defined a number of growth targets, and the actions necessary to achieving these in “2040 Sustainable Growth Targets.”
These growth targets are to: Double the Value of Canadian Seafood; Double the Economic Benefits; and Double the Domestic Consumption of Fish and Seafood, according to Canada’s Blue Economy Strategy 2040: Canada’s Fish & Seafood Opportunity, a 13-page document put together by the FCC and CAIA.
“The opportunity is now to set a new course for Canada’s future seafood leadership. Doing so will stimulate coastal community development and job creation, sustainable food production and security, and Indigenous reconciliation,” says the document, emphasizing the need to develop a five-year action plan for the seafood sector, furthering the development of the Aquaculture Act, and the completion of new regulations under the Fisheries Act.
“With the wild and farm sectors coming together to talk about the seafood opportunity, this is the first time the two national associations — as far as we know — have come together on something like this,” says Timothy Kennedy, President and CEO of CAIA. “It’s a very young food sector, and I think that’s what people often forget about aquaculture. In a sense what we are looking for is acceptance as a major food source of the future, but in mainstream food discussions. And because we are young and we don’t have a long history, people don’t know quite what to make of us. That’s one of our challenges as an industry.”
Indeed, with three coasts, three oceans, and two million freshwater lakes, many Canadians might assume the nation is one of the world’s largest producers of both wild-capture and farmed seafood – and they would be wrong.
Despite 90,000 employed in the seafood sector and a $9 billion share of the gross domestic product (GDP), Canada can generate much more activity from the ocean economy; in fact, the ocean can supply over six times more food than it does at present.
While Canada was the world’s top fish and seafood exporter 25 years ago, the seafood sector has stagnated over years, while other types of farming and food production have grown. Part of the reason is that it is taken for granted.
“For us on the wild capture side, we’re not going to be growing by volume,” says Paul Lansbergen, FCC President. “We hope to be stable or for modest increases in volume over the coming decades, and that’s because of the nature of our wild capture fisheries.
One of the misconceptions surrounding Canada’s seafood sector is that fish resources aren’t managed enough, which is a fallacy. Issues remain including fragmentation of the industry structure and how the industry needs to be promoted and defended in face of criticism.
“We are good at responsible fisheries management [so it will] be sustainable for future generations. We’ve got a robust regulatory regime in place and we have higher-than-average adoption of third-party certification. Only 16 percent of the world’s fisheries are independently certified; in Canada our adoption rate is multiples higher than that.”
For FCC and CAIA, Canada’s Blue Economy presents welcome opportunities – for meaningful conversations about the value of the nation’s farmed and wild-capture fish and seafood sector, about future growth and opportunities, and to discuss frankly how well the industry is managed by government.
Initial conversations about the Blue Economy arose when the federal government issued its mandate letter to the Honourable Bernadette Jordan, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard in 2019. Although stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic, the initiative saw the two sides of the industry – wild capture and aquaculture – come together to develop a joint vision.
By 2040, Canada wants to be among the global top three sustainable-seafood producers; not necessarily the largest, but among the finest in terms of quality of product and sustainability.
A valuable resource
The value of fish and other seafood to the Canadian and global economy, and to Canada’s job creation, nutrition, health and the environment cannot be overstated. According to Canada’s Blue Economy Strategy 2040: Canada’s Fish & Seafood Opportunity, “increasing the fraction of ocean-based food in the global diet, and reducing the share of animal-based foods, would contribute significantly to climate change mitigation.”
Compared to other protein sources such as beef, seafood production has a significantly lower carbon output, both on the wild capture side and in aquaculture.
Many organizations, including the Global Salmon Initiative (GSI) which represents 40 percent of the world’s farmed salmon sector, have extensively studied sustainable practices. Comparing salmon to proteins such as beef cattle, which can weigh up to 2,400 pounds (1,088 kg.) each, the differences are astonishing.
Since salmon live in the buoyancy of water, they don’t have the same gravity issues as cattle, requiring much less costly feed to survive. Using less space than cattle, the conversion of feed to flesh is considerably less with salmon.
“Amongst animal proteins seafood has the lowest carbon output,” says Kennedy. “We have incredibly carbon-friendly food production. This is incredibly important, because on the High Level Panel on a Sustainable Ocean Economy (HLP) (https://oceanpanel.org/), they identified one of their first research papers and said the single most important influencer for reducing carbon in the global food system is marine aquaculture.”
Canada is a signatory to the HLP, a 14 world leader-strong initiative focused on a sustainable ocean economy where “effective protection, sustainable production and equitable prosperity go hand in hand.”
Research conducted by the HLP reflects much of the work of the FCC and CAIA, which has been used in their action plan. And the data is impressive. As a food source, fish and seafood provide many nutritional benefits absent from other proteins or plant products, including crucial Omega-3 fatty acids and many vitamins and minerals.
With the growing global population, seafood is increasingly necessary as an important food source, with demand for seafood currently increasing seven to nine percent per year. According to experts, seafood is more sustainable than other protein sources and, as part of the global food diet, will help mitigate climate change.
“Investment in ocean protein production has a benefit ratio of 10 to 1,” says Lansbergen of findings from the HLP. “A lot of this will come through growth in aquaculture production including fish, seafood, and marine plants. We are optimistic that we can play a huge role in global food systems going forward.”
The time is also ideal for growing seafood-related subsectors of the economy, such as animal feed for dog and cat food, and uses for discarded shells as an aggregate in concrete production, for instance.
Some ways for CAIA and the FCC to achieve Blue Economy objectives by 2040 include generating more value through sustainability; through innovation by way of new technologies in harvesting and processing; and by increasing efficiency.
Exploring other areas such as by-products for animal feed and medicine – for instance the skin from cod being used to create bandages for burn victims, and the extraction of fish oil to produce supplements and nutraceuticals – will generate further growth in the fish and seafood sector.
Still, one of the greatest aspirational goals of the Blue Economy is doubling domestic consumption of fish and seafood. Canadians simply don’t eat enough fish and seafood; on average only once a week, falling short of the recommended two servings per week.
Another challenge is increasing consumption of domestic seafood, reducing the current 70 percent reliance on imported products. Canada produces substantial amounts of local species such as Rainbow Trout, along with a variety of other fish, shellfish, and seaweed, which is a growing part of our aquaculture.
“If we can convince Canadians to eat more fish and seafood as part of a healthy diet – and there’s lots of health and nutritional reasons why they should be doing that – and we get them to look for local product of Canada, then we will be supporting our industry and will be working towards that goal of doubling domestic consumption,” says Lansbergen.
Market research conducted last year into Canadian consumers’ attitudes to the purchase of fish and seafood found perceived cost was a barrier. The industry is now working on a national marketing campaign. An application for funding from the federal government and the provinces is working its way through the approval process.
Another challenge is increasing consumer awareness. Some commonly available products include farmed black tiger shrimp from Thailand, which people buy because of its size. Canada produces northern coldwater shrimp which, although tending to be smaller, are uniquely flavourful, and Canadians need to be reminded that these varieties and others, like lobster, raised, harvested and processed here in Canada, even exist.
“There are many different lobster species,” says Lansbergen, “but I think our lobster is the best, and it is our most viable export product, and it is world-renowned.”
With the goal of seeing a thriving, sustainable aquaculture sector in Canada, both FCC and CAIA agree: Canada has perhaps the most seafood potential in the world, but we need to capture that opportunity.
The fish and seafood sector is unique because there is no other which can come close to offering similar healthy and sustainable food production, and also deliver the associated benefits of Indigenous reconciliation, food security, and decent-paying jobs.
“Our jobs pay quite far above the median in most areas of the country, and there aren’t too many sectors that do that,” says Kennedy. “So in terms of COVID recovery and need for jobs, we are ready. We’ve got a lot of areas where we can invest. We can create jobs, and it’s a really exciting future for the sector.
“But we need the federal government to get onside, and take some leadership in creating a framework to make sure all this happens.”
Unlike other proteins like eggs, pork, and beef, seafood has never had a national marketing board. Both Kennedy and Lansbergen are currently working on a proposal to federal and provincial partners to support a seafood marketing program for Canada, and hope for a positive decision in the next month on this initiative, and other seafood marketing opportunities.
For Lansbergen, the overall message about Canada’s Blue Economy Strategy 2040 is simple: “Eat more fish and seafood, and look for product of Canada. It’s good for you, and it’s good for the ocean economy.”