Fighting for fair and accountable fisheries
Canada | British Columbia | Ucluelet
“I am a third generation fisherman, living in the small fishing community of Ucluelet, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, Canada. Ucluelet still lands and processes fish from a few large vessels but the small boat fleet has almost disappeared and it is now primarily a tourist destination: a resort town.
The Nuu Chah Nulth Nation has been in this region for several thousand years, and received Captain Cook when he made landfall at Nootka Sound in the 1700s. There is a rich history of small fishing communities, both native and non-native, on Vancouver Island.
I started fishing on my father’s boat at the age of seven. We were salmon trollers. Trolling is a fishing technique used for harvesting salmon in the Pacific Ocean using hooks and lures to catch Chinook, Coho, and other salmon species. The troll fleet was a small boat fleet, thirty to sixty feet in length. Since the late 1920’s this troll fleet fished out of several small communities in British Columbia. Along with trolling we fished with longline hook gear for groundfish; dogfish, halibut, blackcod, rockfish, and lingcod.
The troll fleet in British Columbia has been drastically reduced since the mid-nineties by deliberate government policy. The rationalization is due to both political and biological reasons: pressure from First Nations in-river to harvest take precedence; recreational fisheries have been re-allocated chinook and coho as a priority allowing transference of livelihood from the troller to this sector without compensation; international conflicts over interception fisheries with the United States being settled by a treaty that targets the main interception fishery, which is the troll salmon fleet.
On the biological side, impacts, such as seal predation, climate change, poor ocean survival, and destruction of important in-stream habitat, coupled with the adoption of a management regime of weak stock management* and away from mixed stock management have all reduced the amount of fish available for commercial harvest.
My son and I own a longline vessel, originally built in 1927 as a halibut vessel in northern British Columbia. We use it to fish ground fish with hook and line. While doing so we have been involved in integrating multi-species management into the ground fish fishery in British Columbia over the last 14 years. We first started fishing for dogfish and we were not allowed to keep other species. Now, through an integrated management plan, the use of camera technology, and onshore validation, we are able to keep most species we catch.
The downside of this process is that the government of Canada allocated most of the catch to fishermen in the past twenty-five years using an Individual Transferable quota (ITQ) program. In British Columbia, unlike Atlantic Canada, there is no owner operator provision in fisheries management, allowing anyone to buy quota. An owner operator provision would specify that the owner of the boat must also operate the boat while commercial fishing. The lack of an owner operator provision lends to fleet consolidation, quota speculation, and allows large corporations to control quota and markets, leading to monopolization and loss of free markets.
Consolidation hurts small fishing communities and independent owner operators by making licenses and quota too expensive for them to purchase. The speculation in quota with no regulatory framework has advanced now to the point that 70 to 80 percent of landed value is now paid in lease fees in some of the more valuable fisheries.
The values of economic viability of the small boat fleet and the equitable distribution of wealth within the fishing community, once a primary policy objective of the government of Canada, was abandoned in the late seventies, with the advent of de-regulation and rise of the economic theories of neo-liberalism. The stewardship values associated with ownership are lost when the owner is absent from the fishing activity a fact seldom taken into account by proponents of privatization.
During the nineties, I was the co-founder and executive director of a native/non-native organization that was set up to promote sustainable fisheries and sustainable fishing communities. We were often at odds with existing government policy, which was and continues to move toward centralist control through corporate government partnerships, and our primary objective was to build a regional marine management board based on principles of bio-regionalism and sustainability. Our primary project, the building of this board, was accomplished, and has been in place for fourteen years but continues to struggle against the dominant political agenda.
Other regions in British Columbia are now organizing using marine planning to develop a space for stabilizing their communities and their access to adjacent fisheries resource.Despite these overarching problems, the active fishermen left in B.C. continue to try and develop a sustainable fishery for those who are left. Ground fish integration took six years to design and has led to full accountability and responsibility in the ground fish fishery. Every ground fish caught in British Columbia is now captured on camera and validated on-shore. Although this is a very expensive program, it assures the public that fish are being caught sustainably. Fishermen have been active in supporting traceability programs, like the Ecotrust Canada “Thisfish” program. This allows the consumers to track fish on line back to the fisherman who caught the fish.
I am presently the Executive Director of the Area A Dungeness Crab fishery. This fishery was the first fishery in British Columbia to use camera technology to monitor its fleet and long before I started working for them, they designed and implemented a soft shell survey to monitor the state of crab in order to open their season at an optimum time for the marketability of the crab and to minimize mortality.
I also work to support Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) in British Columbia and to attempt to embed the fishing industry into more comprehensive ocean planning. This is becoming critical for the fishing industry as other industries, from alternative energy to transportation corridors and oil and gas exploration, continue to expand on the ocean space traditionally used by the fishing industry.
The continued uncertainties caused by climate change and ocean acidification on ocean health are also part of this process and the fishing industry can play a unique role in data collecting and observing the changes that are occurring.
I continue to work as an active fisherman and to promote co-management in order to give small-scale independent fishermen and fishing communities a voice in the politics of fish in British Columbia.
We have a lot of work to do, but if we can maintain healthy fish stocks there is always hope that there will be a sustainable fishing industry rooted in our coastal communities for generations to come.”
* Weak stock management is a system which constrains fishing on healthy stocks when they are mixed with weaker stocks. For instance, a run of coho salmon might be nearing extinction but the few remaining fish swim with other coho that are very abundant. Weak stock management taken to its extreme would not allow any fishing on the abundant coho because of the possibility of catching a few of the coho from the weak run.