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Friday, March 18, 2011

The Marine Economy and Beyond

Northern Vancouver Island may conjure images of economically depressed towns, victims of the downturn in its staple industries of fishing, logging and mining (cue the minor key and the overly concerned voice of a documentary narrator). While the north island economy is no longer ‘booming’, as it was in the 70's and 80's, many business owners have recognized new markets and are capitalizing on existing ones.

Salmon opening near Metlakatla, BC, ca. 1985
Just a couple of weeks back, the Vancouver Sun ran a story on the 'sheer tenacity' of local Port Hardy business Keltic Seafoods ltd. Former employees of the Maple Leaf Foods processing plant took the place over after the company shut down its operation in 1999. Today, the plant supports up to 200 workers and creates even more employment for its suppliers.

There are many such success stories in the marine sector of the north island. In fact, the marine economy of the region is now quite diverse, according to a joint study by Living Oceans Society and the Regional District of Mount Waddington. The study looked at wages, benefits and employment of local residents from ocean-related businesses in the region. In all, almost 30 % of local employment could be linked to the ocean in 2009 (the study year), and that portion would likely be much greater after last year's spectacular sockeye run. If you'd like the details, final report of the study can be downloaded can be downloaded here.

Of course, this kind of wealth does not generate itself. In the famous words of Gaylord Nelson, which I overheard echoed at a community forum a few weeks back, 'the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment.' So this diverse economy is testament, not only to the sweat of local business people of the north island, but to the bountiful ocean environment that surrounds it as well. Kayaking, surfing, diving, whale watching, commercial and sports fishing all depend directly on the marine environment (as the infrastructure they support relies on them).

In fact, the economy is only the tip of the iceberg when you consider the 'ecosystem services' that the ocean provides and we take for granted. These can include things such as food, which can be valued based on what it would cost to buy them in the store. In 2010, for example, First Nations in the north island caught about $1.8 million worth of fish and shellfish for food (not to mention what non-natives residents filled their freezers with) which does not show up in our market-based economy. Finally, both native and non-natives who live in the area value the health of the ocean in far more than monetary terms. Complimentary research, conducted in the north island last summer by a UBC masters student, found that residents measure the value of ocean ecosystems in spiritual and emotional terms as well.

Does that make north island sound complicated? Well, in many ways it is. With so many different values existing side by side (and sometimes coming in conflict with one another), it makes planning how to use the marine areas a dicey matter. One thing that's clear from the above-mentioned report however, is that such planning must be done with the health of the marine environment foremost in mind. Without it, not much of an economy would remain.

1 comment:

  1. You've lost an N in the title.

    I am always impressed when, on spending time on the North Island, I see how much is going on up there. At Chatham Point, I saw boats, mostly commercial, going back and forth all day long. It's hard to picture it as a dying economy.