What role will forestry and aquaculture have in the post-COVID-19 economic recovery in our region?
That was the question being explored by Campbell River city council during a Special Committee of the Whole Nov. 23, where they met virtually with various leaders in the aquaculture and forestry industries to discuss their impacts on the local economy.
The meeting was in response to a recent report written by local business leaders who formed a group called the Campbell River Business Recovery Task Force. That report recommended that the city pay particular attention to the “three pillars” of the local economy – aquaculture, forestry and tourism – when considering policy decisions to help the region’s economic recovery post-COVID.
While the city already has a Tourism Advisory Committee, it has no such body to look at issues surrounding forestry and aquaculture, so the first step it took was to look at ways to form one. The Nov. 23 meeting was the first step in that, as well as giving city council a chance to get updated on the state of the two industries and their current hurdles as they move forward.
Because Campbell River is only one community of many which is impacted so heavily by these two industries, mayors Gaby Wickstrom of Port McNeill, Brad Unger of Gold River and Dennis Dugas of Port Hardy were also involved in the meeting.
John Paul Fraser, executive director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association, told the meeting that the resiliency of the aquaculture industry throughout the pandemic has been “quite remarkable,” but there are many struggles still ahead.
“I was reading some economic analysis today that postulated that 10 months from now will be even more difficult than today,” Fraser says. “There aren’t many industries in the province, and particularly on Vancouver Island, that can say they’ve gone through this without a single job loss. We can, and we’re proud of that. That’s not to say that there won’t be, and that there couldn’t be as early as tomorrow. It’s been challenging, but we continue to get through.”
In terms of the future, however, Fraser says the main stumbling block to the continued strength of his industry – and those businesses that support it – is certainty.
“With a new provincial government coming in, a federal government with maybe looking at an election in the spring, and hopefully a vaccine getting out into the population in the next six to nine months,” Fraser says, “we feel like we have an incredible opportunity to continue to support Campbell River and the communities of the North Island, provided there’s stability, which we currently do not have.”
Fraser calls the federal government’s commitment to transition aquaculture to land-based facilities by 2025 “the most destabilizing and destructive investment killer that we’ve ever seen,” but says advocating for the industry can’t keep coming from people like him.
“I’m paid to represent the sector. I do it with love and concern, but it’s sometimes good for government to hear from other people,” he says, such as other levels of government.
Bob Brash, executive director of the Truck Loggers Association, Stewart Glen, director of forest inventory and stewardship with Western Forest Products and Molly Hudson with Mosaic Forest Management say it’s a similar situation with the forestry industry.
“The overall investment climate right now in the B.C. forest sector is not good,” Brash says. “If you talk to any financial analyst, they’ll tell you B.C. is at a discount, and it’s at a discount for many reasons. Some of those relate to the long-term certainty of the working forest.”
Whether it’s the discussion surrounding old-growth logging or what areas can be harvested at all, Brash says, “the uncertainty surrounding things certainly doesn’t foster investment.”
The other main issue in the forest sector, Brash says, is the cost structure and regulatory framework they work under.
“We have a very high cost structure in B.C.,” Brash says. “Whether we’re the highest in the world or among the highest in the world is the only real debate. That doesn’t want to make people put money into new machinery and new technology.”
Glen and Hudson agreed with those sentiments, both adding there needs to be a concerted push to educate the public on the value of the forestry sector, as well as better communication both between companies and between the sector and various levels of government.
In the end, it was decided that the next course of action would be for the group to meet quarterly for regular updates on how things are going, and that the city would continue to advocate for both industries whenever the opportunity arises for it to do so.
“If you need us to do something for you, ask,” says Mayor Andy Adams. “Let us know how we can help you and what we can do to advocate for you.”
Coun. Ron Kerr says he hopes this meeting is “something we can build upon.”
“What I heard clearly is that there’s a lot of challenges coming up,” Kerr says. “Not just same old, same old, but new challenges, and I think we have an opportunity to build on this partnership, not only with industry but also with First Nations and regional districts to come together with one voice so that when we speak with senior governments, they know they can’t pick us apart.”