No issue is off the table this week as more than 100 B.C. fishermen, fleet leaders, First Nations leaders and other salmon stakeholders gather for a two-day virtual round-table in a desperate bid to bring the ailing commercial fishery back from the brink.
The United Fishermen And Allied Workers’ Union (UFAWU-Unifor) and active fishermen’s associations convened the conference, Future of BC Commercial Salmon Fishing, at the request of the federal standing committee on fisheries asking for recommendations on how to revitalize commercial fishing on the west coast.
“The commercial salmon fleet is pretty well broke,” Joy Thorkelson, president of UFAWU-Unifor said. “And DFO’s outlook is as depressing this year as it has been for the past two years. Yes, we need more salmon, but that’s not the only issue.”
The issues are complex and sometimes controversial. Allocation of stocks with recreational and First Nations fisheries, and access to healthy runs are priority issues, but interwoven are challenges with policy and governance that are not meeting the economic-development needs of fishing communities, a licensing regime established in the 1990s that’s consolidated power into the hands of corporations and so-called “armchair fishermen”, and an explosion in pinniped predation rates on juvenile salmon, to name a few.
“How do we create a fishery that’s vibrant, rather than one everybody wants out of?” Thorkelson said.
Following what’s described as a successful first day Jan. 21, heading into Day 2 of the meetings Kim Olsen, vice president of UFAWU-Unifor held a virtual press conference, underscoring an ongoing concern among veteran fishermen unable to pass the torch to the next generation.
“The only barrier I see for them not having a future in the salmon fishery is government and DFO inaction to implement positive changes to make our industry vibrant and sustainable,” Olsen said.
Fishermen of retiring age once invested upwards of $150,000 for licences they have traditionally relied upon for retirement income. But the economic returns for fishermen are so low today, and the future so uncertain, the next generation is not buying up the licences at even bargain rates.
Instead, they are often purchased by non-fishermen, which relegates career fishermen to contractor or employee status with little stake or say in their future.
“Licences are being held by what we call armchair fishermen, and it sometimes pushes out newcomers who actually want to get into the industry,” said Kyle Louis, a gillnetter of 20 years out of Ladysmith.
Between 1950 and 2015 returns of pink, chum and sockeye salmon was relatively consistent, but since the mid-90s the allowable catch has dropped by about 70 per cent. Incomes plummeted 83 per cent, according to UFAWU-Unifor.
Olsen said DFO’s neglect to monitor the bulk of B.C.’s salmon runs is a contributing factor to the declines.
“You only hear about the Fraser, Skeena and maybe Barkley Sound salmon, but there are almost 700 runs of salmon in British Columbia. We’re not allowed to access [most] of them … because there are no funds for streamwalkers to count how many fish are going into them. DFO has no clue how many fish are going into these streams where we can have viable fisheries by harvesting the surpluses.”
Record-low returns in 2019 and 2020 forced most in the commercial salmon fleet to stack their catches with other species.
Helen-Anne Beans, a young fourth-generation seiner who fishes out of Alert Bay with her grandfather, said in the past two years she’s earned only $2,000 and $5,000 respectively from salmon.
“The big runs come only every four years…so I have to stack all my fisheries because I’m just not making any money as a deckhand. I have to do herring, then prawn and then salmon. If I’m lucky I’ll do crabbing in the winter.”
Fishermen caution that stacking puts pressure on other fisheries, adding to the milieu of concerns.
“You got to be good at more than one thing or you’re not going to survive,” Louis said. “The days are gone when you could go fishing for salmon and live comfortably through the winter with your family.”
Thorkelson expects the conference will result in a list of recommendations to DFO sometime next week.