By Keith Norbury

Nearly a quarter of Canada’s seafood exports leave the country from the Pacific coast. B.C. exported $909.6 million worth of the country’s $4.18 billion in seafood exports in 2012, according to a search of seafood groups and categories on Industry Canada’s Trade Data Online site. That was down from $942.9 million in 2011 and $993.8 million in 2010, but up slightly from the $907.6 million in exports in 2009.

“Roughly, if I take our total business, I would say 60 per cent is export,” said Jack Waterfield, CEO of Lions Gate Fisheries Ltd., a medium-sized fish processing company on the Fraser River in Ladner, a Vancouver suburb.

The U.S. accounted for 51.38 per cent of B.C. exports in 2012, while China and Japan were responsible for 15.07 and 10.57 per cent respectively.

“A new and emerging market is Taiwan, which is very similar to the market in China,” Mr. Waterfield said. “It hasn’t materialized as much as we’d like to see it, but it’s still licking at the edges.”

Since the late 1980s, Japan has been the company’s primary market. Before that, it was western Europe, said Mr. Waterfield, who estimates his company accounts for about 15 per cent of B.C.’s fish production. The Baltic countries, particularly Russia and the Ukraine, are also important players. For those exports, about half travel via the Panama Canal, and the other by “land bridge” to eastern Canada and then across the Atlantic by ship. “We use a combination of land and sea.” Mr. Waterfield said.

B.C. also imports a lot of seafood: $729.9 million in 2012. That was a tiny rise from 2011’s imports of $725.8 million. The U.S. was the source of 51.34 per cent of the 2012 imports, with Thailand representing 12.7 per cent and China 12.06 per cent.

Hundreds of commodities shipped to 73 countries

In 2011, B.C. produced 262,600 tonnes of seafood with a landed value of $810.2 million, says the provincial government’s 2011 British Columbia Seafood Industry in Review. The sector produced 476 “distinct” commodities with a combined wholesale of value of $1.4 billion. Export shipments totalled 183,000 tonnes in 2010 to 73 countries where B.C. seafood was served in about two billion meals.

B.C. exported $481.5 million of salmon in 2011, according to B.C. government estimates. That compared with $570.3 million in 2010 and $417.9 million in 2009.

In 2010, B.C. had a record catch of 20,000 tonnes of sockeye, one of the premier species of Pacific salmon, a 28-fold increase over the 2009 catch of 700 tonnes. The 2010 sockeye catch had a wholesale value of $174.4 million. In 2011, however, the sockeye harvest dropped to an estimated 3,000 tonnes with a wholesale value of $97.4 million. Overall, B.C.-produced salmon had a wholesale value of $758.7 million in 2011. That was more than half of B.C.’s seafood total.

Most of B.C.’s salmon production is now “cultured” or farmed salmon, with that harvest in 2011 totalling 83,200 tonnes, representing a value of $550.3 million at wholesale. Atlantic salmon, with a harvest of 79,400 tonnes and wholesale value of $510.3 million in 2011, makes up the bulk of farmed salmon in B.C. Total wild salmon production in 2011 was an estimated 20,400 tonnes with a wholesale value of $208.4 million.

Japan a major market for B.C. sockeye salmon

In 2011, pink salmon was among the most widely exported seafood items from B.C. It was shipped to 26 countries while sockeye, sardines, and crabs were exported to 19 countries.

Two thirds of B.C.’s $467.2 million of salmon exports in 2011 were Atlantic salmon, with Japan and the U.S. being the top markets for those farmed fish. In 2010, B.C. salmon was exported to 33 countries. The largest market for frozen and fresh sockeye was Japan, while the U.S. received most of B.C.’s Atlantic salmon exports.

Most salmon is frozen for export and shipped in 40-foot containers, Mr. Waterfield said. He uses various freight forwarders. However, for China shipments his forwarder of choice is Global Freight Solutions.

“The only major change in the past years is we now put a temperature recorder in the containers,” Mr. Waterfield said. “So the temperatures are monitored and recorded from the time (a container) leaves our dock until the time it arrives at the customer’s dock.”

Lions Gate also processes farmed antibiotic-free Chinook salmon, for which there is a growing demand in Asia and globally. The Chinese airline EvaAir, “has come on with excellent rates” for shipping that salmon fresh, Mr. Waterfield said. And other Chinese airlines are also bringing in special cargo planes. “So that market is being opened up quite noticeably,” he said. The company also ships a few containers of frozen farmed Chinooks to China as well, although that is well below the volumes exported to Japan, Mr. Waterfield said.

“The main trend in the past three or four years has been salmon, particularly chum salmon and pink salmon,” Mr. Waterfield said of the B.C. export market. “Sockeye is still predominantly destined for the domestic market.”

Hake and pollock are other common export species of B.C. fish, particularly to Russia and the Ukraine. South Korea is also a strong market for pollock and for arrow-tooth flounder, which is sometimes called turbot, although it is a different species from Atlantic turbot.

Shellfish exports increasing as herring market declines

There’s also a very large market in Asia for geoducks, clams, crabs and mussels, in which Lions Gate is not involved, Mr. Waterfield said.

B.C.’s wild shellfish production totalled 15,000 tonnes with a wholesale value of $202 million in 2011, according to the provincial government. Crabs at $57 million and geoducks at $46.6 million accounted for much of that. Those were down from 2010 when B.C. produced $73.1 million of crabs and $51.8 million of geoducks.

Roe herring used to be a lucrative export market, but not any more. Total herring production in 2011, about 85 per cent of it roe herring, totalled 7,400 tonnes with a wholesale value of $30 million. In 1979, the commercial herring catch of about 40,000 tonnes was valued at about $150 million, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Mr. Waterfield said the value of roe herring has dropped simply because tastes have changed in Japan. “It’s primarily the younger generation,” he said. “They’re more health conscious, and not eating as much salt.” Nevertheless, he is “anticipating” a stronger market for roe herring in 2013. That is a reflection of global supply and the fact that Canadian roe herring commands a premium price compared with roe herring from Alaska and Russia, Mr. Waterfield said. “Our handling is a lot better too,” he said. The roe herring now goes to China first, “99.9 per cent,” where it “is reprocessed in China and then shipped to Japan because labour in China is so much less expensive.”

Seafood also arrives from elsewhere to B.C.

B.C. also imports a lot of seafood, $729.9 million in 2012, $725.8 million in 2011, and $611.1 million in 2010, according to Trade Data Online. The U.S. is the source of most of those imports, namely 51.34 per cent in 2012. Thailand is the second largest source of seafood imports to B.C., at $92.7 million in 2012.

Mr. Waterfield said his company has been importing from Asia, including China, for 50 years. With a population that is growing more wealthy and has a large appetite for seafood, China is now a promising new export market, he said. “The market now is also looking at rockfish, red fish particularly,” Mr. Waterfield said. However, that market hasn’t developed as strongly as he had anticipated it would a year ago. The harvest of B.C. groundfish – which includes rockfish, Pacific cod, hake, and halibut – tallied an estimated 99,600 tonnes with a wholesale value of $328.1 million in 2011. That was down from 115,800 tonnes with a wholesale worth of $322 million in 2008. Halibut is the most valuable groundfish, with an estimated value of $130.7 million in 2011 on 4,000 tonnes of catch. The hake catch in 2011 was 54,400 tonnes but worth only an estimated $62.2 million wholesale.

Tuna market stymied by lack of trade deal

Another significant B.C. fish is tuna. Its production reached 6,500 tonnes worth $47 million in 2010, the latter representing a 71 per cent increase over 2009, according to the B.C. government. However, that dropped to an estimated 4,535 tonnes in 2011, according to DFO figures. The tuna catch is most likely to be much smaller still for 2012 because the U.S. declined to extend a 31-year-old tuna treaty with Canada that expired in 2011. As a consequence, Canadian boats were not able to fish in U.S. waters off the Columbia River, a tuna fishing hot spot. “The only guys that can now fish are the boats that are big enough to go off the 200 mile limit, which is only about 10 per cent of the tuna fleet,” said Kelly Hawes, President of Cold Star Freight Systems Ltd. of Victoria, B.C.

Four years ago, a chance meeting with a tuna boat skipper resulted in Cold Star trucks unloading tuna from Fisherman’s Wharf in Victoria and transporting the fish by ferry to processing plants in Vancouver. That enabled the boats to return to the fishing grounds a day or two more quickly than if they had to offload in Vancouver, which saved precious time during the three-month season.

The tuna are frozen at sea in the holds of the vessels as soon as they are caught. At the dock they are unloaded into plastic-lined cardboard totes that are double-stacked on wooden pallets and placed inside 53-foot trailers in Victoria. From there, trucks haul the trailers by road and ferry to Cold Star’s cold-storage warehouse in Vancouver where they are transloaded into 40-foot containers.

In 2010, Cold Star transported seven millions pounds (about 3,000 tonnes) of tuna, but in 2012 that dropped to less than 800,000 pounds (about 360 tonnes).

“What we’re waiting to hear is whether or not that tuna treaty is going to be re-signed for this year,” Mr. Hawes said. “It’s a bit early yet, so we don’t know. But we know they’re talking, and so hopefully in the next few months we’ll have an indication. The fishermen are all telling me that they think that it’ll be back on, but they’re not sure.”