B.C. Fish Fuelling Export Growth

Written by Stephen Poloz

When it comes time to talk about B.C. exports the conversation naturally turns to trees — pulp, paper, two-by-fours and oriented strandboard. But B.C.’s export sector is becoming much more diversified these days, and the fishery is a key part of the story.

B.C.’s exports of goods are worth over $30 billion annually, which is big business. Exports of services (tourism, engineering and so on) are clearly important, too, but the numbers are more difficult to come by. Almost half of all the goods exported are in the forestry business, while another 30% fall into the categories of metals, minerals and energy. One of the big stories in the past couple of years has been coal, which is seeing a major renaissance as steel companies throughout Asia import B.C. coal by the boatload. Coal prices have risen dramatically to boot.

Looking beyond those obvious export sectors, though, one finds a very healthy agri-food business in B.C. The sector accounts for more than 8% of total goods exports. Consumers will readily recognize B.C. fruits and wines, but here the most prominent product is fish.

This may be surprising to some, because of the persistent rumblings by conservation experts about the fragility of the global fish supply. But while Mother Nature may be struggling to maintain world fish stocks, fish farmers are managing to fill the gap.

B.C. is the fourth largest producer of farmed salmon in the world, after Norway, Chile and the U.K. There are also major farm operations in shellfish, trout and in marine plants. It all adds up to something in excess of $300 million per year, 70% of it exported, with the U.S. by far the largest customer. B.C. fish farming today is almost as big as the regular commercial fishery.

On top of that, farmed fish sales are growing very rapidly this year. Between 1995 and 2002 the B.C. government had imposed a moratorium on new salmon fish farms while it studied the environmental impacts of the industry, a controversial subject. Even after the moratorium was lifted in 2002, however, the export value of farmed fish declined in 2003 and 2004, because of a temporary excess supply of fish on global markets. But in the first nine months of 2005, exports of farmed fish products are up by 33% compared to the same period in 2004. This will take the industry back to levels of export sales last seen in 2002.Even more growth is expected in 2006.

With strong growth in exports of food, metals, energy and machinery, B.C. is more than making up for soft forestry exports in 2005. Total exports are forecast to rise by 7% in 2005, following 9% in 2004. In 2006, slower growth is expected in the global economy, but B.C. exports are expected to grow a further 3%. Agri-food exports are forecast to lead the way, with 9% growth.

The bottom line? Economic growth sometimes emerges from the most unexpected places. Two years ago, few would have been anticipating the explosion in the global market for coal. Today, it is aquaculture. With convenient access to both the huge U.S. and the blossoming Asian markets, B.C. producers can anticipate continued exporting success.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily of Export Development Canada.

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