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North Vancouver MP Jonathan Wilkinson is likely already hearing from all segments of his country’s seafood industry – from lobster to cod harvesters — now that he’s been given the role of minister of fisheries, oceans and the coast guard.

But one of his first big roles, according to Undercurrent News, could be helping to establish just exactly how the government regulates and promotes a part of the industry that until very recently wasn’t even mentioned in Canada’s seminal, 150-year-old Fisheries Act: aquaculture.

Aquaculture “clearly needs to have a greater mandate” in the country, Timothy Kennedy, executive director of the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance, told Undercurrent News Thursday.

Jonathan Wilkinson

PHOTO: Jonathan Wilkinson, Canada’s minister of fisheries, oceans and the coast guard.

As expected, Dominic LeBlanc has been removed from his fisheries post and given what many consider a promotion. LeBlanc, who has been described as a Trudeau confident, is now in charge of intergovernmental affairs, northern affairs and internal trade, a role that is expected to take advantage of his diplomacy skills to improve federal-provincial relations in advance of the 2019 election.

The coming election – expected to happen on or before October of next year – has been reported to be one of the main reasons for and crucial goals of the cabinet shuffle, though Trudeau said during a press conference Wednesday, following the swearing in ceremony, that reducing Canada’s trade dependence on the US is also important.

“There is certainly a level of clarity for Canadians, for businesses, for everyone across this country that we need to diversify our markets. We need to ensure that we are not as dependent on the United States,” Trudeau said.

Jim Carr, the former natural resources minister, has been given an international trade role, where he is expected to kickstart stalled efforts toward a new trade agreement with China and promote the existing trade agreement with the European Union, winning over the EU countries that have yet to ratify the deal. Both could be positive developments especially for the Canadian lobster industry, which recently saw its opportunities expand in China due to its brewing trade war with the US.

New aquaculture law could emphasize promotion

By moving from his position as parliamentary secretary to environment minister Catherine McKenna to head up fisheries, Wilkinson also has gained a promotion. He’s the first member of Parliament from British Columbia to hold the post since 1999, according to theVancouver Sun. Six of the last seven in the role have hailed from Atlantic Canada.

Prior to his political career, Wilkinson spent nearly two decades in the private sector, mostly as an executive at “green”-focused technology companies. According to a 2012 interview with The Globe and Mail newspaper, Wilkinson worked as a Bain & Company consultant in the telecom, forest products, financial services and transportation sectors.

After moving to Vancouver in 1999, he worked at gas purification systems maker QuestAir Technologies, becoming its CEO in 2002. Seven years later he moved on to Nexterra Systems, a waste-to-energy firm. He left in 2011 to become the CEO role at water treatment company BioteQ Environmental Technologies.

Wilkinson could confront a whole host of issues in taking on the role previously maintained by LeBlanc, from continuing to navigate the tricky waters surrounding efforts to balance the snow crab and lobster industries against the preservation of endangered North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the fight related to the reduced biomass detected among North Atlantic cod off the coast of Newfoundland & Labrador.

Observers will know more when Trudeau issues mandate letters to his various ministers, detailing the objectives he wants them to prioritize, an action that can be expected soon.

The Newfoundland & Labrador-centered Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union (FFAW-Unifor) expressed optimism on Thursday that Wilkinson will lead efforts to strengthen coastal economies, expressing frustrations over delays in receiving fishery management plans, including those related to halibut, snow crab, capelin and cod, and decisions made in relation to the arctic surf clam licenses that resulted in jobs leaving the province.

“This cabinet shuffle is an opportunity for a reset on fisheries issues,” said Keith Sullivan, FFAW-Unifor’s president. “While our relationship with minister Leblanc started out strong, the minister’s commitment to the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery was not as evident in recent months. With a new minister comes a new opportunity to promote and protect the inshore fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador and repair a relationship with fisheries workers that has eroded in the past year.”

One important task that Wilkinson is likely to take on right away is to lead the update of the aforementioned Fisheries Act, perhaps even championing the creation of a new federal aquaculture law for Canada. LeBlanc was expected to lead a meeting of provincial officials to discuss the matter, in July, in St. John’s, Newfoundland, but it was postponed. It now will likely be up to Wilkinson to lead the discussion when the meeting is rescheduled, likely in the fall.

A new aquaculture law could be used to divide the government’s regulatory and promotion roles, perhaps giving Canadian salmon farmers the same kind of boost that Norway, Scotland and Chile get from their governments, Kennedy suggested.

The aquaculture industry leader said he’s not clear yet how Wilkinson feels about net-pen salmon farming, which has come under fire in British Columbia in recent days. The industry has been peppered there with bad press, including the US state of Washington’s decision to prohibit the use of net-pens off its coast after a large-scale Atlantic salmon escape in 2017, just south of British Columbia.

A humpback whale is snared by a rope like those used on lobster traps in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Photograph by Scott Benson for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In April, the Supreme Court of Canada found that the federal government failed to respect the rights of five West Coast First Nations in allowing salmon farms to be established in the area.

But Kennedy is hopeful that Wilkinson’s long professional background in sustainable technology will lead him to see the important advantages of aquaculture.

Also, he points to parts of the Barton Report, a study delivered last year, as requested, to the Trudeau administration that suggested tripling the size of Canada’s aquaculture industry by 2025 would be an excellent vehicle for boosting the country’s employment numbers.

In an interview reported Wednesday, however, Wilkinson only expressed concerns about wild-caught Pacific salmon, saying his appointment helps raise the profile of their stock’s recent decline.

“We have been very clear that we are committed to a science-based approach to addressing issues relating to restoring salmon stocks that are facing significant challenges,” he is quoted by the Vancouver Sun as saying.

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