Serving exotic markets: A slippery business?

There is an excellent article in The Economist this week about Maine and the rapid increase in the export of baby eels – earning as much as $5,700/kilo.   Think about that the next time you are haggling about 50 cents per kilo on the price of lobsters.

I checked the numbers and New Brunswick eel exports are on the rise but at a much more restrained level rising from $3.1 millioni in 2007 to $15 million in 2011.  Still, using standard multipliers for the sector this means more than 100  FTE jobs/year in the province – not an amount to snub your nose at.

The reality is that Asian, Eastern European and other country tastes for what we would consider exotic are considerable and rising disposible income is creating vast new markets.  The mink industry in Nova Scotia is now a $200 million business per year – in a rural area that is benefiting from the boom.

In an age of increasing global competition it is important to find your niches.  Most people chafe at the idea of mink farming but it is supporting a large wedge of the economy in the Digby-Yarmouth region.  And they have been working with the province to address the concerns over the waste which will now be converted into energy to fuel a local public building.

I don’t want to get into a debate about seals or mink or even eels but I remain uncomfortable that we are not as deliberate as we should about agriculture/aquaculture/fishing and carving out niche markets.  Are there specific products that are in rapidly growing demand that grow particularly well in our climate and with our soil?

As I discovered about the mining sector, there is very little alignment with folks in economic development who prefer the sexier ICT, aerospace, etc.  But natural resources – both renewable and non-renewable  should be part of the mix.  We have a very large portion of our workforce that is at a skills and literacy level that rules them out for most high end knowledge-based jobs.  Over time we need to address this (more about this coming in my TJ column this week) but if we ignore development now in industries where these foks are best able to contribute we hurt them and the economy.

PS – Did this rapid rise in eel exports get covered in the media?  I didn’t see it but it would be – I think – a good story.


2 thoughts on “Serving exotic markets: A slippery business?

  1. I’m not sure you read the article all the way through. First, you mention that the price has skyrocketed, but don’t list the number of eels caught. It’s the number, not the price, that determines how many jobs are created. And since NB has essentially ONE distributor, much of that money may go to them, not the fishermen.

    Second, since there is only a six week season, its hardly ‘full time’, no matter what kind of multiplier you may be using. And given that the article states that in just a few short years the poor critters are already to be placed on the endangered species list, then it hardly seems like the basket to put your fish eggs in.

    And third, that is the problem with ‘resource’ based jobs. They are ultimately short lived, in fact the article pretty much says that asia is buying TONS of baby eels so that it can raise them and basically rebuild its fishery, and then no more industry for Maine, which doesn’t look like it will have any eels left anyway.

    The point though is really about ‘niche marketing’, but I’d argue with your somewhat elitist notion that populations of New Brunswickers are too stupid to figure out technology and are better suited for resource jobs. On that issue, its worth pointing out that ACTUAL knowledge in the resource sector is FAR harder to learn than technology jobs. As I’ve said numerous times, programming a game requires a hundred bucks and an hours tutorial. Programming with modern software is a far cry from what it was twenty years ago, and I’ve seen men in their fifties go from zero computer knowledge to programming proficiently within six months. It really comes down to desire.

    The resource industry really needs to deal with its issues first, namely, that resource extraction is geared toward technology and profit, not jobs. New Brunswickers have essentially been subsidizing their forestry job losses for decades. As I pointed out years ago, New Brunswick actually has the fewest jobs per acre of worked forestland in the entire country-and that includes Prince Edward Island. These are systemic issues, and until those are resolved, its virtually impossible to provide resource based jobs in NB without wiping out resources, which then leads to its demise-then the workers have to leave or become dependant on government.

    But I agree very much with the idea of niche marketing. In New Brunswick, like much of Canada, very little emphasis is geared toward educating people to become independant producers for markets. It’s downright darwinian out there. If somebody were coming to me for advice on training for the future, no matter who they were, I think technology would be on my lips before eel fishing. At the very least technology knowledge is applicable to other areas of job creation, and fishing for eels only teaches you how to fish for more eels-if any are left.

Comments are closed.