Ucluelet’s municipal council has written a letter urging the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada to have a closer look at its proposed recovery strategy for orcas before it crushes Ucluelet’s economy with a potential fishery closure.
DFO has identified Swiftsure and La Perouse Banks as feeding areas for southern resident killer whales and is considering designating the areas as critical habitats, which West Coast fishers fear could bring closures, particularly to the region’s recreational fishery.
“There is no doubt that, if the proposed critical habitat area was implemented today, Ucluelet would be placed into an economic crisis having major financial implications to the community,” Ucluelet council wrote in their letter.
Through the letter, Ucluelet asks DFO to pause the designation pursuit until an economic impact assessment has been completed that specifically looks at the potential impacts to coastal communities and also demands further consultation with residents and stakeholders.
Mayor Dianne St. Jacques read the letter aloud during Oct. 9’s regular council meeting and council agreed to encourage other communities in the region to work together to find alternative solutions.
“It’s basically a call to arms,” said Coun. Randy Oliwa.
DFO hosted a public information session on Oct. 4, but that did little to ease local concerns.
Sportsfisher Miles Downsbrough told the Westerly News he has been fishing off Ucluelet for roughly 15 years and said any fishery closure would have dramatic impacts on the West Coast.
“Bamfield is going to be hugely affected. Ucluelet has other economies to keep it going, but fishing and sport fishing is a big part of the economy here. So that affects everybody, it can affect property values, jobs; it can affect everything right down the line,” he said.
He said the implications of the designation remain ambiguous as DFO has not announced what the specific ramifications would be if the designation goes forward.
“I don’t really know what I’m fighting for because they’re being really unclear,” he said.
During the public input portion of Oct. 9’s council meeting, resident Erik Larsen said he came out of DFO’s information session with none of his questions answered.
“It appeared to me that we were just one box that they [DFO] were ticking off to carry on to fulfill their mandate and they couldn’t care less what was happening to us,” he said. “If these people have their way, more than a third of the people you saw in the streets in Ucluelet this summer will be gone…I beg you to start a process to put a stick in the wheels and slow these people down.”
He added DFO should be looking into enhanced salmon habitat restoration funding as well as the impacts seals and sea lions have on fish populations before implementing any fishing closures.
Mayor St. Jacques said Ucluelet is working on solutions alongside the Alberni Clayoquot Regional District and Ucluelet Chamber of Commerce.
“I don’t think anybody disagrees with your statements. It’s going to have a huge impact on the community,” she said to Larsen. “I agree with you. We should be nervous about this species at risk group. They do pack a big stick and have a lot of power.”
She added that everybody recognizes the importance of orcas, but suggested more research needs to be done for alternative solutions like hatchery funding and investigating predators, while also balancing the economic impact a closure would have on the coastal community.
Lara Kemps of the Ucluelet Chamber of Commerce attended a meeting between B.C. Chambers and DFO on Thursday and told the Westerly News after the meeting that the Chamber will continue pushing hard for alternative solutions.
“If sports fishing were to close on our Coast, it would devastate our communities,” she said. “We need to find solutions that are beneficial to everyone, like increasing budget and awareness to our hatcheries and creek restoration.”
Kemps encourages residents concerned about the potential protected habitat designation to email their concerns and solutions to DFO at SARA/LEP.XNCR@dfo-mpo.gc.ca before Nov. 3 and to also sign a petition being circulated by Ucluelet resident Lynette O’Brien.
Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns told the Westerly he has been working with O’Brien and the Chamber on the petition so he can present it to the House of Commons.
“We want to make sure that the government, when they’re identifying critical habitats, get it right because it affects peoples’ livelihoods,” he said.
He added that the overwhelming view on the West Coast is that more funding is needed for salmon restoration work and hatcheries, rather than closures.
“We’ve heard this right across the board, the spirit of the communities is, if they [DFO] really care about southern resident killer whales, they should inject immediate funds into coastal communities that produce the fish and bring our fish back,” he said. “The sledgehammer approach of a closure that could happen as a result of this critical habitat process isn’t the solution. The solution is bringing back more fish.”
He said orcas are a big part of the West Coast’s economy, but added that DFO needs to complete more research before moving forward with the designation.
“My role in this is to ensure that the government conducts a fair process,” he said. “We all care about the southern resident killer whale population. There are absolutely serious concerns and legitimate concerns that need to be addressed around their survival.”