By Brian Lee Crowley
The Chronicle Herald, Moncton Times and Transcript, Vancouver Sun on December 8, 2003-12-11

AS A RESULT of a combination of rising wealth, rising population and rising technological sophistication, the relationship that humanity enjoys with the seas is being fundamentally altered. Nowhere is this transformation clearer than in aquaculture, which rose from nothing to a $30-billion US industry worldwide last year. The prestigious Economist magazine recently featured an aquaculture cover story called the Blue Revolution, intentionally drawing a parallel with the Green Revolution that hugely increased world agricultural production and efficiency at the end of the last century.

Aquaculture is set to become a vigorous and lucrative industry for Canada’s coasts. Yet “fencing” this last frontier is hampered by a property rights regime intended for the wild fishery, rather than agriculture, which aquaculture more closely resembles.

The development of agricultural-style property rights for aquaculture faces two major hurdles. First, the advance of the agricultural frontier assumed (wrongly, as we now understand – the aboriginals were there and had rights of which Europeans took little account) that the land was empty and to be had for the taking; but aquaculture today faces prior ownership and usage rights – on the part of aboriginals, recreational users and capture fishermen, for example – in coastal waters.

Second, unlike agricultural land, where ownership was transferred to individual farmers, the state continues to own the seabed, the water column and the water surface. In effect, the fish belong to the fish farmer, but the fish farm does not. Governments arbitrarily impose their will on their fish farm tenants, with all the pressures on politicians to bend to special interests and political expediency such a relationship implies.

There is so much administrative discretion around aquaculture in part because there are no federal or provincial statutes in Canada dedicated to aquaculture. There is little case law defining aquaculture. There is no legal restraint on government and administrative discretion, no right to sue government in the courts, and no rights that government itself is duty bound to protect. Canadian aquaculturists have been arrested by government officials for “illegal fishing” when they were harvesting animals that existed chiefly because of the culturing efforts of their owners. The police have refused to lay theft charges against people who rustle aquaculturists’ fish stocks because their property rights are so muddy, it is not at all clear that they own what has been stolen, even though, again, the animals exist chiefly because of the labour and financial investment of the fish farmer.

Given the precariousness of their ownership of animals and farm, aquaculturists face huge problems in getting adequate financing and insurance, and this means that substantial productive capacity in the oceans is being squandered. Canadian aquaculture is, in effect, controlled by a sluggish and inept bureaucracy that is blinkered by a concern for short-term economic development and endowed with discretionary power that bends to the political strength of established interests.

Countries like Chile have done much better and, as a result, have created one of the largest fish-farming industries in the world. Chile, for example, grants licences and leases that bestow virtual private property rights in fish-farming sites.

Lots of concerns have been raised about the environmental impacts of aquaculture, but these concerns usually fail to stand up to rigorous testing, or else stem from the very absence of property rights that obstruct the industry’s development.

Increasingly, those who care about the thoughtful management of the oceans are concluding that peaceful co-existence of aquaculture and other uses is both necessary and positive. No one is more sensitive to water quality than the aquaculturist whose livelihood depends on his fish thriving there. Escapes of cultured fish are a disaster to the business that owns them, resulting in significant investment to prevent escapes and a continuously improving industry record. Use of antibiotics is declining rapidly because of improved management of fish stocks. B.C.’s Salmon Aquaculture Environmental Assessment Review, for example, found that “salmon farming in coastal British Columbia, as currently practised, presents a low overall risk to the environment.”

According to a recent paper written by UPEI economist Robin Neill for my institute, if Canadian aquaculture is to grow, create prosperity and sophisticated year-round jobs in poor coastal communities and feed more of the world’s population, the industry needs secure property rights to the foreshore, the water column and the seabed, rights embodied ideally in a National Aquaculture Act and backed by the courts, with suitable safeguards for the environment and the rights of competing users of ocean resources. It does not need more government economic incompetence and inefficiency, or arbitrary decision-making by bureaucrats.

A new prime minister interested in finding innovative approaches to rural development and turning the page on Ottawa’s failed strategies for Atlantic Canada would put fixing aquaculture’s problems at the top of his list. Paging Paul Martin.

Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think tank in Halifax. E-mail: [email protected]