La Presse
Forum, dimanche, 30 novembre 2003, p. A8

(English translation of French text)

As a result of a combination of rising wealth, rising population and rising technological sophistication, the very relationship that mankind enjoys with the seas is being fundamentally altered. Nowhere is this transformation clearer than in aquaculture, which rose from nothing to a US$30-billion industry worldwide last year.  The prestigious Economist magazine recently featured an aquaculture cover story called the Blue Revolution, intentionally suggesting a parallel with the Green Revolution, which 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.
According to a recent paper by a university economist for my institute, if Canadian aquaculture is to grow, create prosperity and sophisticated 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. 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].

LaPresse is North America’s largest French-language daily newspaper