Seafood Industry Reports Record High (But There’s a Reason Why)

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A recently released document, Seafood Industry Year in Review, is full of promising figures for a province enduring an austerity budget. But numbers mean nothing out of context. The “Record High” the report declares is factually true and certainly good news, however, in isolation, the positive one-liner lacks the full story.

In the wake of bleak budget news in 2016, many locals have been screaming for the province to diversify its economy to rely less on oil money. Our seafood sector is answering the call, particularly by ramping up farmed salmon and mussels. Right now, aquaculture accounts for 19.2% of our seafood industry’s production value, which is up a whopping 7% from last year’ 12.2%.

This surge in aquaculture explains why the seafood industry is reporting a record high: Aquaculture wasn’t a thing here until recently, so, lumping a new industry in with overall Seafood Industry Figures is essentially an optical illusion that our combined fisheries are doing better than ever.

In other words: What used to be Shellfish + GroundFish + Pelagic Fish = Annual Value of Fishery, now has a new moneymaker in the equation: Shellfish + GroundFish + Pelagic Fish + AQUACULTURE = Annual Value of Fishery.

So it’s not a lie to say “Best Year Ever for NL Seafood Industry!,” but it’s only the best year ever because we’re lumping a new endeavour (farmed fish) in with wild fisheries like cod, capelin, and shrimp. And the reality is, Aquaculture’s boom is masking things, like shrimp’s bust. Or put more optimistically and cheerfully: it’s compensating for it.

Also, in terms of employment, it’s fabulous aquaculture currently employs nearly 430 Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, but that pales in comparison to the 9,491 folks earning a living in the wild fisheries – a truer powerhouse of local employment.

So, Aquaculture is a great and promising new venture to diversify our economy and pump up what our seafood industry hauls in every year. But we shouldn’t let it let us relax our commitment to a healthy and well managed wild fishery.

Especially since farming salmon in wild waters can be horrible for wild fish if done sloppily, or even properly. Being caged up, salmon in fish farms can become magnet havens for sea lice that spread to wild fish; farmed escapes breeding with wild fish can cause catastrophe, etc, etc.

Aquaculture Boom Credited with Seafood Industry Record High

Aquaculture has been exclaimed as one industry that could really boost local economy, and it’s now official that 2016 was our aquaculture industry’s best year to date. As mentioned, nearly 20% of the seafood industry’s 1.4 billion came from aquaculture this past year.

Total provincial aquaculture production in 2016 increased by a whopping 25.5% over 2015, and in doing so, generated a record high total market value of $276 million (up $115 million from 2015). To put that into perspective, aquaculture made more than wild groundfish in 2016 (which includes the combined landings of cod, flounder, and turbot, at $118 million).

The rise in market value is primarily attributed to increased Atlantic salmon production, stronger market prices, and favourable exchange rates. Mark Lane, Executive Director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Aquaculture Industry Association, is pretty excited:

“As responsible farmers of the sea, we are proud that our industry is now worth more than $275 million; contributing significantly to the economy of this province and the country, creating jobs, and revitalizing rural coastal communities.”

Salmon is the New Saviour; Cod’s in the Backseat

A province known for its cod is focussing on salmon more than ever. In 2016, salmonid production increased significantly to 25,411 tonnes, and is valued at $263 million. A figure the province is looking to double.

“We have committed to growing our salmon aquaculture industry to 50,000 tonnes,” says minister Crocker, “and I am pleased to say that with some significant developments in the aquaculture sector this year, we are maintaining momentum to achieve that goal and beyond.”

Government Flexing its Mussels As Well

Minister Crocker also vows to have the mussel industry grow to produce over 10,000 tonnes. Blue mussels constitute the main focus of shellfish aquaculture in NL. Overall, shellfish production in 2016 was on par with the previous year (a 2.6% increase), but thanks to some favourable exchange rates, the production value rose slightly (5.6% to 13.6 milion).

How Are Our Wild Commercial Fisheries Doing?

It’s complicated. Actual landings declined 10.6% in 2016, but government’s Year in Review  document says “it remains the second highest landed value recorded in the history of the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery.” Our 4 wild fisheries (Shellfish, Ground Fish, Pelagic Fish, and Sealing) put $708 million bucks in our bank in 2016.

Landings were down overall, but low landings for shrimp and snow crab were alleviated by higher catches of cod, mackerel, and flounders. Shellfish, as usual, dominated dollar value for the commercial fishery, with its landed value of $568 Million (more than the combined landed value of Groundfish + Pelagic Fish ($139 million)).

But shellfish landings dipped 20.8% from the previous year, primarily due to quota reductions for shrimp and snow crab. Snow crabs are the king of value in our shellfish industry; in 2016 they constituted 48% of its dollar value, whereas lobster, for comparison, constituted 6%. Luckily, to offset the lower landing of snow crab, the average price per pound of its meat was up.

Shrimp’s Contribution to Our Bank Shrank

In terms of dollar value, shrimp is second only to snow crab as a driver of our shellfish industry (and remember our shellfish industry is our biggest fisheries’ money maker). So it was bad news for everyone when scientists discovered a huge (40%) decrease in shrimp biomass off the northeastern coast of Newfoundland. This resulted in the total allowable catch of shrimp in that area being reduced by 42% in 2016.

Naturally, the shrimp fishery was impacted by that quota reduction. The final result was a drop in the total value of shrimp by 35.7% (to $204 million) in 2016. This was exasperated by the fact that the minimum price-per-pound paid to harvesters for shrimp was way down compared to 2015. But aquaculture saved us there, by compensating for shrimp’s shrunken revenues.

Industry Setting Its Eyes on the Future And Baiting More Buyers

Right now, the province’s seafood products are exported to more than 40 countries worldwide, but as Fishery and Land Resources minister Steve Crocker says, “It is essential that we continue to leverage the industry’s tremendous potential.”

To do so, the establishment of a “ provincial Fisheries Advisory Council” is underway to “provide independent guidance for the growth and sustainability of the industry in Newfoundland and Labrador.” Once formed, the council will “immediately begin work on initiatives to support our industry in its transition to groundfish.” Not a bad plan. In 2016, The Ground Fish Industry made $118 Million to Shellfish’s $568 Million.

About Author

Chad Pelley

Chad Pelley is an author, songwriter, and journalist who wrote for publications like the Globe & Mail and The Telegraph-Journal before founding The Overcast. Now he spends 25 hours a day keeping up with his email, and has no time to be his former self.

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