The Atlantic Fisheries and Rural Resilience: New Models of Economic Development

In our second blog from the 2017 joint Dalhousie-Memorial SSHORE workshop, Karen Foster shares her experiences with Atlantic Canadian rural communities, economic development and the complicated idea of Import Replacement.

Karen Foster (CRC in Sustainable Rural Futures for Atlantic Canada, Dalhousie University)

We may learn more—and create more or better questions to ask ourselves—if we allow subsistence to mean production rooted in common sense, production that has not yet broached the monstrous threshold where food, both in its consumption and in its creation, becomes a fetish for exchange-value to the exclusion of its apparent and immediate use-values (Chappell)

From 2016-18, I worked in partnership with the Centre for Local Prosperity (CLP) on a study of the potential for ‘Import Replacement’ as an economic development strategy in Atlantic Canada. In the course of this research, we have also gained some understanding of community responsibilities toward “our shining seas”—responsibilities that are tangled up in wider relations of interdependence, care and conflict between urban and rural places, foreign and domestic markets, primary and secondary industries, and older and younger generations of coastal dwellers.

The impetus for the Import Replacement study was a dissatisfaction with the dominant mode of thought over the last half-century of regional economic development, which has prioritized “export-led growth.” The basic premise is that any economy, of any size, should have “balanced” trade—that is, it should not import much more than it exports or it will be too dependent on markets that are beyond its control.

The orthodox way of pursuing balanced trade in Atlantic Canada has generally been to try to increase exports. The problem with this approach is that it makes our region and its coastal communities more dependent on global markets, increasingly vulnerable to economic fluctuations far beyond their control, and less self-reliant as a result.

A better way to improve a community’s self-reliance, and thereby its resiliency in the face of economic shocks, may be found in an idea of the late Jane Jacobs: bringing down imports through “Import Replacement.”

A community or region focused on Import Replacement would, in theory, identify areas of local demand that are currently met by imports, and try to cost-effectively produce those products or services locally instead, keeping money circulating among community members.

But behind this elegantly simple idea is a more complicated, empirical question: how can a community actually reorient itself toward Import Replacement? Do they have the power to do it? To begin answering this question, we conducted focus groups in four Atlantic communities, three of which (Shelburne, NS, Burin Peninsula, NL and Souris, PEI) are coastal, fishing communities.

In each place, we heard multiple versions of the same “absurd story”: small communities send their products away, for consumption or further processing, and then (if they can) buy the same or equivalent products back for their own consumption. The story often revolved around seafood. The stinging irony is that all three coastal communities feed distant markets from their oceans and then suffer from food insecurity themselves.

Community living facilities and hospitals next door to some of the most active fisheries anywhere served their clientele “Captain Highliner,” as one participant put it. Locals did not know what to tell tourists looking for a fresh lobster roll in Shelburne or cod and scrunchions in Burin; with the exception of a handful of times when a local tried and soon failed to start a roadside seafood stand or restaurant, there were few obvious, accessible, ocean-to-table options. One of the research partners at a focus group in Shelburne, moderating the discussion, asked, “tonight, if I wanted to get steamed lobster?” And the group told him: “you’re not getting it. It’s a damn shame.” “Lobster capital of Canada—lobster capital of the world! [And] you have to go to Sobeys to buy fresh, and do it yourself.”

In Burin, the same thing: “The locals and tourists are amazed. We’re known for being a fishing province, and there’s no fish markets.” There was some hope that this would soon change, due to a recent regulatory shift allowing fishermen to sell their catch directly off the dock to consumers for household consumption and restaurateurs for preparation and resale.

The ironic scarcity of seafood in fishing communities stems partly from broad structural changes in the way the Atlantic fisheries have been managed from about the 1970s onward. As fisheries scholars Apostle et. al. explain, although we now think of fish as a stock that is managed through quotas and licenses, this was not always the case. For that to happen, it took international agreements and the establishment of “exclusive economic zones” (EEZs), which turned the fish along coastlines into the property of the nearest states and prohibited other countries’ fisheries from harvesting in those zones to create “a global fish market.”

Coastal nations with relatively abundant fish stocks became major suppliers of fish on the world market. Countries that had traditionally fished around the world became importers of fish. There was thus an enormous increase in measured trade in fish products.” These changes “meant a weakening of the links between harvesting and processing […] as it became cheaper for companies to source product elsewhere in the world, rather than harvest it locally with their own vessels, or to buy from the inshore fleet. (Apostle)

Atlantic Canadian fisheries have subsequently shifted toward a “high-volume, low-cost” model where the objective is to get rid of product as quickly as possible, in contrast to a low-volume, high-cost model that adds value and traceability that, according to market research, consumers are actually willing to pay a premium for. Looking only at Haddock imports and exports from Nova Scotia, a 2013 report from the Ecology Action Centre showed that over 90% of haddock is exported unprocessed, a loss of “over $7 million in direct export revenue in 2011.” Nova Scotia’s GDP takes a further hit because the province then imports haddock fillets back in (usually from China) for domestic consumption. Indeed, “over the past four years the export of whole haddock and re-import of haddock fillets has directly cost Nova Scotia’s GDP between $5 and $20 million each year, not accounting for the economic impact of employment in processing” (Nikoloyuk & Adler). This does not even touch on the deferred environmental costs—costs today’s grandchildren will pay—of transporting high volumes of seafood around the world and back.

While they did not articulate these exact transformations and their effects, people in the focus groups had an acute sense that the convoluted path locally-caught seafood now takes on its way to market hurts their local industries and people. It was clear within minutes of beginning each focus group that the rationale for Import Replacement, and the theoretical benefits of putting it in practice, were foregone conclusions. Participants had a sense that their communities ought to be trying harder to benefit from the fisheries—to engage in more ‘value-added’ initiatives, to keep processing and distribution closer to home and thus maintain or regain some control over the supply chain.

But there was also some trepidation about ‘leaning in’ to fishing by investing more in processing, distribution, and other value-added activities, for one main reason: people in each community were uneasy about the local economy even in good times, because every export boom they had been through had been followed by a bust. The stories we heard in Burin were anchored to pivotal moments in the cod fishery—from ageing fishermen’s boyhood memories of boats packed to the gunnels with fish, to the lasting community and personal impacts of the 1992 cod moratorium. In Shelburne, participants rode the rise and fall of lobster stocks and prices like deep ocean waves. Accordingly, participants in both focus groups told us that while things were “booming right now,” “the critical thing is to not think it’s going to boom tomorrow.”

To cope with this “come and go” existence (cf. Beck & Ionescu), participants emphasized the importance of diversification in economic development, business, and livelihoods. At the community and industrial levels, locals felt the need for sensible, sustainable diversification that complemented and did not threaten extant industries (“oil and lobster don’t mix”, e.g.), without being entirely dependent on the success of those other industries. Just as they understood, from experience—or common sense—the importance of not putting all of a community’s eggs in a single export basket, they knew production for the local market had to be diversified too.

But they did not know how to bring such macro-level diversification about. There were innumerable barriers to new, small, locally-owned businesses, from regulatory nets that trapped “the little guy” to indomitable competition from larger firms. Although they simultaneously internalized the tired and unproven assumption that rural places lack the requisite “entrepreneurial spirit,” they described a situation in which the consolidation of enterprise and the concentration of wealth and capital really do make it almost impossible for small communities to turn things around.

And so, they focused their efforts to diversify on their own individual livelihoods, engaging in the timeworn rural strategy that anthropologists and historians call “occupational pluralism,” holding multiple paid jobs or doing “petty production”, odd jobs or under-the-table work in the so-called “informal economy” in addition to their primary occupation (Reimer, 2006; Du Plessis, 2004). This was a common attribute of research participants and a practice they observed—and valued—in their communities. Importantly, they valued it partly, but not only, for its economic benefits; their orientation toward the informal and the unpaid resembled what 1970s philosopher Ivan Illich called “vernacular” practices—those activities that people do to satisfy wants and needs that are not motivated by economic relations of commodity exchange. Such practices are a point of pride and a part of rural identities. In Burin, one woman recalled what a former student told her: “‘my father said, that if he three jobs he’d hire one Newfoundlander, because he could do the three of them.’”

Participants in all communities perceived a gradual loss of these eclectic skillsets among rural Atlantic Canadians, who seemed to have had more useful skills when unemployment was high and labour mobility low. In other words, high-paying jobs “out west” prompted rural Atlantic Canadians to specialize in such a way that they lost the ability to adapt to and take advantage of sporadic, diverse local opportunities. Memories of the past were tinged with pride in the traditional resourcefulness and resiliency of locals, but not everyone wanted a return to “jobbing around.” It had its benefits, but it was usually “forced,” not chosen.

Near the end of our stay in Burin, I was beginning to feel like the coastal communities we visited were running out of options. They had no real control over the development of their oceans or their economies, whether by influencing policies or generating new wealth themselves—no power to push against corporate giants for industrial diversification, and little hope of their own enterprises competing with the economies of scale enjoyed by large multinational firms. It seemed unfair to expect rural people to continue to “get by” in ways that are admirable and traditional but precarious and stressful. People in my generation, although increasingly familiar with “jobbing around,” wouldn’t likely submit to rural occupational pluralism in enough numbers to replace dwindling rural populations. I wondered how I was going to write any recommendations about how to pursue import replacement with all of this discouraging data.

But then we visited the Petty Harbour Fisherman’s Cooperative (PHFC). It had recently begun supplementing its fishing income by becoming landlord to two new enterprises housed in its facility—a building constructed mostly by the cooperative members’ hands—and renting its bright, airy hall overlooking the harbor as event space. The PHFC has its challenges: ageing membership, fluctuating fish stocks and prices, complex regulations and licensing requirements, and competition from ever-larger firms. But in the face of all this, it was doing OK. The future looked bright.

As cooperatives do, the PHFC collectivized the risk and reward of investment and, importantly, of diversification. It’s an old model, but it’s surviving in new times. (In fact, the two longest, continuously running fish processing plants in Newfoundland are cooperatives.) Nobody is getting particularly rich in the co-op. There are no ground-breaking “innovations”—nothing that would trigger a cascade of today’s governmental buzzwords: growth! Productivity! Competitiveness! But the PHFC’s resilience is remarkable. It is doing what people in our case study communities want, but have difficulty imagining: it is carving a space for shared, local prosperity in a global economy otherwise characterized by private greed.


Apostle, Richard, Gene Barrett, Petter Holm, Svein Jentoft, Leigh Mazany, Bonnie McCay, and Knut Mikalsen. (1998). Community, state, and market on the North Atlantic rim: challenges to modernity in the fisheries (Vol. 4). University of Toronto Press.

Beck, Lauren, & Christina Ionescu (2015). Challenges and Opportunities Faced by Small Communities in New Brunswick: An Introduction. Journal of New Brunswick Studies/Revue d’études sur le Nouveau-Brunswick 6(1).

Chappell, M. Jahi (2016). Alternative Agriculture, the Vernacular, and the MST: Re-creating Subsistence as the Sustainable Development of Human Rights. In Murton J., Bavington D., & Dokis C. (Eds.), Subsistence under Capitalism: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (pp. 254-292). Montreal; Kingston; London; Chicago: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Du Plessis, Valerie. (2004). Self-employment activity in rural Canada. Rural and Small Town Analysis Bulletin 5(5). Ottawa: Statistics Canada

Nikoloyuk, Jordan and David Adler. (2013). Valuing our Fisheries: Breaking Nova Scotia’s Commodity Curse. Halifax, NS: Ecology Action Centre. Accessed June 14, 2017 at

Reimer, Bill. (2006). The Informal Economy in Non-Metropolitan Canada. Canadian Review Of Sociology & Anthropology, 43(1), 23-49.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s