Troubling the License: Fisheries Enclosure Off of British Columbia, 1969–1999

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Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on Canadian coastal histories, which considers intersections of nature and culture along the saline shores of the land and tidewaters currently known as Canada, the country with the world’s longest coastline. Guest-edited by Sara Spike.


In May 2019, the Canadian Parliamentary Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans released findings from a study on the West Coast Fisheries. There have been many, many Federal studies about commercial fishing off of British Columbia; topics frequently include trade and international markets, the biological status of stocks, ecological concerns to do with habitat and pollution, and even trade-offs presented by marine protected areas. This study asked a somewhat less common question: who shoulders the risks and who reaps the benefits from the West Coast fisheries?

Before going any further, and at the risk of stating the obvious, I need to say something out loud: researchers from across the social sciences and humanities have a great deal to contribute to pressing problems in fisheries! The sheer volume of excellent work on the West Coast by Indigenous scholars, historians, geographers, and anthropologists illustrates this easily, especially in light of the critical question posed by the Standing Committee last year.[1]

The idea that (un)sustainability has as much to do with equity as it does ecology, biology, and economics may indeed be gaining momentum. The Standing Committee report itself concluded “that the West Coast commercial fisheries fall short … in how they benefit active fishers and their coastal communities.”[2]

Troubling the license

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about commercial fishing licenses. As fishing industrialized, nation states sought to enclose fish stocks, that is, to demarcate them for preferred firms and gear types and restructure fisheries towards high-volume production.[3] State-allocated commercial fishing licenses that mimic private property by extending a bundle of individual rights to a designated holder were widely adopted.[4]

Today, this type of license is ubiquitous and central to the structured management systems that most Western countries use to manage commercial fisheries. These systems commonly feature three broader design principles: a) that fish stocks should be divided up into “catch share” units (sometimes called quota) and allocated to license holders; b) that holders should be able to freely sell and/or lease their licenses and quota; and c) that the most efficient harvesters should accrue additional licenses and/or quota as those who are less economically efficient exit fishing.[5]

Commercial salmon fishing, Active Pass, British Columbia, 2011. (John Newcomb, Creative Commons)

Josh Stoll and colleagues astutely observe that licenses and quota now compete with or even altogether replace “other institutions that have historically acted to constrain access and marine resource exploitation.”[6] Of course, access to fisheries and fishing effort were, and in some places continue to be, managed effectively through collectively and locally devised rules and enforcement practices. One thing “troubling the license” means is to remember that individually held, freely transferable licenses and quota are not the only way to address tricky decisions related to access and allocation in fisheries. 

West Coast licenses and fisheries enclosure, 1969-1999

On the West Coast, Indigenous peoples have harvested, cultivated, and traded coastal and marine species since time immemorial. Indigenous fishers also contributed significantly to early commercial fishing and canning; fisheries, especially salmon, herring, and halibut, were critical to coastal people and communities up and down the coast.[7]

Federal policies that sought to enclose fisheries and implement coast-wide commercial licensing programs began in the late 1960s. Notably, in 1969, the Federal Government decided to limit the total number of licenses it would allocate for commercial salmon fishing. In total, 5870 “Class A” salmon licenses were issued to each vessel that had a recorded catch of 10,000 pounds or more of pink or chum salmon during the 1967 or 1968 seasons. Those with less than 10,000 pounds of recorded catch received “Class B” salmon licenses. If the vessel tied to a B license retired, the license also ceased to exist. Put another way, Class B licenses were allocated to “less productive” vessels with the intention that they would phase out of the fishery.[8]  

Single-species license allocation and limitation programs accelerated through the 1970s and 1980s, and continued into the 1990s. For perspective on the scope and speed of enclosure, consider the following timeline:

  • 1974, roe herring
  • 1975, herring spawn-on-kelp
  • 1977, abalone, Schedule II species, shrimp, and groundfish trawl
  • 1979, halibut
  • 1981, sablefish
  • 1983, geoduck and horse clam
  • 1990, shrimp by trap
  • 1991, green urchins, red urchins, sea cucumber, rockfish hook and line inside waters, and crab
  • 1992, rockfish hook and line outside waters
  • 1993, prawn and shrimp by trawl and euphausiid
  • 1996, sardines
  • 1998, eulachon
Georgia Strait herring fleet, 2010. (Gordon Hunter, Creative Commons)

The total number of licenses in the West Coast fisheries peaked in 1989/90 at slightly over 15,000; by 2017 there were just 6,563.[9] Emerging research, including a paper that Josh Stoll and I recently published, shows that corporate interests like processing companies and non-fishing investors now control numerous licenses and high volumes of quota in various fisheries.[10] In short, a small number of holders have very large and financially valuable license and quota portfolios. These holders (and/or vessels they own) can fish the licenses and quota. They can also lease them out to others.

Conversely, a large number of holders have smaller portfolios with one or two licenses. Evidence suggests that many of these are harvesters who independently own and operate their own vessels; they are small business people who navigate a variety of costs and decisions, including if and how to purchase or lease licenses and quota from larger businesses to cope with changing market and environmental conditions.[11]

Closing thoughts

In his testimony to the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans study, one active West Coast fish harvester reflected:

The implementation of this [license and quota] system created winners and losers then and today. Some lost out and left the industry or were priced out when ITQs [individual transferable quota] were introduced. Others were initially granted ITQ allotments and limited-entry licences that have valued to a point where they are worth millions of dollars. BC’s access to harvest fish was privatized and profited from.[12]

Alongside words like these, the history of fisheries enclosure and patterns that we see in license and quota holdings today, strongly suggest an uneven and inequitable distribution of risks and rewards in the West Coast fisheries.  

But tides may be starting to shift. First Nations are poised to rebuild license and quota portfolios that can be put to use in support of community-oriented small boat fisheries.[13] The Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans also called on the Department of Fisheries and Oceans “to facilitate, foster and implement grassroots initiatives for change within each fishery.”[14] Researchers from across the social sciences and humanities are well-suited to support in this work, particularly in imagining what fisheries and coastal communities could look like and designing management systems that have better potential to get us there.


[1] As examples, consider: Nicholas X. Claxton, “ISTÁ SC’IÁNEW, ISTÁ SXOLE ‘To Fish as Formerly’: The Douglas Treaties and the WSÁNEC’ Reef-Net Fisheries,” in Lighting the Eighth Fire: The Liberation, Resurgence, and Protection of Indigenous Nations, ed. Leanne Simpson (Winnipeg: ARP, 2008): 47–58; Douglas C. Harris, Landing Native Fisheries: Indian Reserves and Fishing Rights in British Columbia, 1849–1925 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009); Charles R. Menzies and Caroline F. Butler, “Returning to Selective Fishing through Indigenous Fisheries Knowledge: The Example of K’moda, Gitxaała Territory,” American Indian Quarterly 31, no. 3 (2007): 441–64; Diane Newell, Development of the Pacific Salmon-Canning Industry: A Grown Man’s Game (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1989); Evelyn Pinkerton, “Alternatives to ITQs in Equity–Efficiency–Effectiveness Trade-Offs: How the Lay-Up System Spread Effort in the BC Halibut Fishery,” Marine Policy 42 (2013): 5–13.
[2] K. MacDonald, chair, “West Coast Fisheries: Sharing the Risks and Benefits,” Report of the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, 42nd Parliament, 1st Session (2019), 46.
[3] Carmel Finley, All the Fish in the Sea: Maximum Sustainable Yield and the Failure of Fisheries Management (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).
[4] Liam Campling and Elizabeth Havice, “The Global Environmental Politics and Political Economy of Seafood Systems,” Global Environmental Politics 18, no. 2 (2018): 72–92.
[5] Courtney Carothers and Catherine Chambers, “Fisheries Privatization and the Remaking of Fishery Systems,” Environment and Society 3, no. 1 (2012): 39–59.
[6] Joshua S. Stoll, Christine M. Beitl, and James A. Wilson, “How Access to Maine’s Fisheries Has Changed Over a Quarter Century: The Cumulative Effects of Licensing on Resilience,” Global Environmental Change 37 (2016): 83.
[7] Dianne Newell, Tangled Webs of History: Indians and the Law in Canada’s Pacific Coast Fisheries (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993).
[8] Andrea R. Haas, Danielle N. Edwards, and U. Rashid Sumaila, “Corporate Concentration and Processor Control: Insights from the Salmon and Herring Fisheries in British Columbia,” Marine Policy 68 (2016): 83–90.
[9] Jennifer J. Silver and Joshua S. Stoll, “How Do Commercial Fishing Licences Relate to Access?” Fish and Fisheries 20, no. 5 (2019): 993–1004.
[10] Danielle N. Edwards and Evelyn Pinkerton, “The Hidden Role of Processors in an Individual Transferable Quota Fishery,” Ecology and Society 24, no. 3 (2019), https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol24/iss3/art36/.
[11] Danielle N. Edwards and Evelyn Pinkerton, “Priced Out of Ownership: Quota Leasing Impacts on the Financial Performance of Owner-Operators,” Marine Policy 111 (2020), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2019.103718.
[12] MacDonald, “West Coast Fisheries,” 22.
[13] “Fisheries Agreement Will Get Fishers Back on the Water,” Coastal First Nations, August 5, 2019, https://coastalfirstnations.ca/fisheries-agreement-will-get-fishers-back-on-the-water/.
[14] MacDonald, “West Coast Fisheries,” 46.
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Jennifer Silver is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. Jennifer's research focuses on fisheries, oceans governance and digital technology, often adopting a political ecology lens. She also works within several interdisciplinary and locally-engaged networks that seek to advance coastal equity and sustainability in the Northwest Pacific.

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