Doug Kimoto’s livelihood begins with a 42-foot commercial salmon troller named ‘La Perouse.’ The wooden fishing vessel has been a member of his Japanese-Canadian family for 70 years.
“I started commercial fishing with my father when I was about 13-years-old,” Kimoto says as he waits for his cup of Red Rose tea to cool on an oddly sunny December afternoon outside Ucluelet’s Gray Whale Deli. His father, Tom Kimoto, lost about 10 years of his life as a result of being forced into a Canadian Japenese internment camp, Kimoto recalls.
“These last few years, it’s been a disaster,” he says. “Years ago you could make a decent living, but now it’s down to what you’d call not even a minimum wage for most fishermen.”
Kimoto is wearing a medical facemask. He looks well, in spite of the fact he is fighting for his livelihood and his life; two years ago, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. But he says he feels good on the chemotherapy.
In his lifetime as a commercial salmon troller, Kimoto has fought tirelessly to rebuild wild salmon stocks with boots on the ground restoration work and volunteering at local hatcheries. His efforts have not gone unnoticed by friends within the industry, but it’s marred by years of navigating what he calls “discriminatory DFO policy” that’s effectively destroyed his vocation.
He places a newspaper clipping from Dec. 6, 2020 on the picnic table. The article describes why the U.S.-based Center for Whale Research recently acquired 45 acres of land on either side of a Washington river to help restore the ecosystem, which in turn will hopefully bring back runs of chinook salmon. Chinook salmon are the main food source for the endangered southern resident orca.
He flips through his own notes, which summarize over 30 years of his own personal habitat restoration efforts.
“If we restore the habitat everything will be fine, but that’s not necessarily so. If the restoration isn’t done right it’s all for not,” he says.
Kimoto goes on to describe the upper Kennedy River side channel project as a prime example of “wasted” government dollars. Initiated with forest renewal funding back in the nineties, the stream restoration project cost hundreds of thousands, but if you went to look at it now, he notes, there is nothing there.
“It’s been a complete failure. It’s totally taken by Mother Nature,” says Kimoto.
A lifelong commitment to salmon
From 1985 to 2016, Kimoto quietly volunteered for DFO’s Salmonid Enhancement Program (SEP) as the Public Involvement Program (PIP) contractor. Fisheries supported him with funding to buy spawning gravel and equipment to place the spawning gravel in salmon streams around the Kennedy Flats Watershed, an area ravaged by unsustainable industrial forestry practices.
During this period of time, Kimoto paid for his own gas and received no wages from SEP.
“He really wanted to bring the fish back, you know? He still does. He worked endlessly. You’d go out in the bush in the fall and you’d find him there by himself,” recalls Richard Smith, past manager of Thornton Creek Hatchery.
“Near the end of my involvement, the funding was cut to the point I thought made the efforts less viable or appreciated, Kimoto says, later adding that his reward for the efforts was watching salmon returning.
Recently, retired committee advisor of SEP Barry Cordocedo gifted Kimoto with an “unofficial” salmon glass award for his years of dedication to SEP.
“I looked forward to working with him because he was so polite and laid back. The award was just to appreciate the work he has done for the fish. It’s a real thank you from the fish,” said Cordocedo.
Dale Desrochers, acting regional manager for SEP’s community involvement and restoration, said while he has personally only had the pleasure of meeting Kimoto a handful of times, many of his colleagues know and respect him for his passion for the work he does.
“Doug Kimoto is a valued long-standing salmon steward and has volunteered his time and energy over the years to improving salmon stocks and their habitat,” wrote Desrochers via email.
“The Pacific Region SEP program routinely recognizes individuals like Doug and a recognition for him is planned, however, due to COVID-19, has not completed to date but remains an important step that our program is looking forward to take,” Desrochers wrote.
Kimoto thinks DFO prioritizes fish farms ahead of programs like SEP, which was established in 1977 to bring abundance back to salmon stocks in B.C.’s rivers, streams, and coastal waters.
“Ahousaht, Tla-o-qui-aht and Hesquiaht Ha’wiih (hereditary chiefs) should be looking at phasing out fish farms,” he says. “All the years I’ve been here, there have been viruses that impact the wild species. The latest one is sea lice. Two sea lice will kill a little salmon,” Kimoto says. “As long as the farms are existing like they are now, the wild salmon in Clayoquot will never recover.”
The future of small-scale commercial salmon trollers
“Well, we always live in hope, but I’m not too optimistic these days, especially with DFO,” says Kimoto. “The government needs to revamp DFO and move towards a regional management program or even provincial management because it’s not working the way things are going. It hasn’t for decades.”
He dives into a complex history between commercial troll fishermen and the Government of Canada. From cutbacks and re-allocating resources to recreational anglers to prioritizing fish farms and biased restrictions on fishing gear, Kimoto calls DFO policy “discriminatory” towards commercial trollers.
Third-generation Ucluelet fisherman Dan Edwards says Kimoto’s livelihood has been taken away by the Government of Canada.
“He wants to be a fisherman. He has a huge investment in boats and gear, we all do. [DFO] just decided to take it all away. They are forcing him to sell his licence,” says Edwards in a phone call interview.
Eight years ago, in efforts to reduce salmon licences, DFO launched the Pacific Salmon Treaty voluntary salmon troll licence retirement program.
“We started the first one in 2012 for Area G only. Since launching [DFO] has retired 162 licences after 26 rounds,” said Andria Charette, the program’s project officer at the time. There are currently 91 Salmon Troll licence eligibilities within Area G, but not all may be active, according to the department. By comparison, DFO records indicate there were 439 salmon troll Area G licenses in 1996.
Kimoto did not pursue this voluntary retirement because he felt it did not fairly compensate him. Fellow salmon troller Mike Smith travelled with Kimoto in the same group for several years. He hasn’t jumped at the opportunity to apply to the voluntary licence retirement program either.
“It’s a low-ball offer. And I want to hang in their for a while more even though I know it’s not much of a livelihood now,” Smith says.
The last round of applications was sent out in January 2020. Charette was unsure when, if at all, a future round of licence retirement packages would be sent out. The voluntary retirement program was created with $30 million U.S. dollars, and is subject to the remaining funds. She went on to say commercial trollers like Kimoto could potentially sell his licence in an open market transaction or pursue the Pacific Integrated Commercial Fisheries Initiative (PICFI), which relinquishes existing licences to support sustainable First Nations commercial fisheries.
Kimoto will celebrate his 71st birthday on January 3, 2021. He hopes to fish next summer.
“If I’m still alive,” he quips as he tips back the last of his tea.