On the hook: Commercial salmon fishers reeling from sweeping closures

Kevin Carpenter, a Heiltsuk gillnetter from Bella Bella, was preparing his boat for the fishing season when he heard something that would send him and the entire commercial fishing community reeling.

Canada’s fisheries minister, Bernadette Jordan, announced in late June that her department would be closing nearly 60 per cent of the province’s commercial salmon fisheries to address the precipitous decline of the iconic species.

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Carpenter, who is 54 and started working on fish boats when he was five or six, said waiting for the ­federal Fisheries and Oceans Department’s next move is a “huge gamble.” He said he has things he can do to earn money and fill his freezer if he can’t go out and fish, but he’s worried about some of the older fishers who don’t have the same options.

“What are they supposed to do? They’re going to go home, they may drink themselves to death or they may lose their marriages, their houses, sell everything. Who knows?”

Fourth-generation fisherman Jordan Belveal of Nanaimo was ready to head north on his boat Blue Bayou to catch coho July 1 in Dixon Entrance, between B.C. and Alaska, when he heard about the widespread closures.

Although he says he doesn’t mind keeping his boat tied to the dock if it means preserving some runs, Belveal opposed the closures, saying some fisheries with a good abundance of salmon have been cancelled.

Losing the coho fishery has had a “major effect on us,” said Belveal, who operates Island Wild ­Seafoods with wife Catlin, selling hook-and-line caught ­sustainable wild seafood to Vancouver Island ­customers.

Belveal is now counting on the Aug. 12 chinook fishery off Haida Gwaii, which would normally have opened in June but was delayed to allow fish to head to their home rivers on Vancouver Island and to the Fraser River, he said.

That fishery will see fishermen pull in fish that are largely heading to Washington state, he said. ­Fishermen will be allowed to retain pink salmon caught as by-catch.

Despite the closures, Belveal is determined to remain a fisherman for as long as possible. “It is not just a job for me — it is a lifestyle,” he said. “I grew up on the boats and I think that it’s something that is sustainable for the future generations.”

Like Carpenter, Belveal, 40, is particularly concerned for fishermen who are in their sixties, and hopes they receive enough money from the federal government to retire.

“They are in dire straits right now. They’ve lost their ability to make any kind of income,” he said. “This is devastating and there’s no relief.”

The scale of the commercial closures, which include five species of salmon and multiple fishing methods, such as seine, gillnet and troll, is unprecedented. Previous closures were either shorter or targeted a single species such as coho.

However, according to the department’s fisheries management plans, only 13 of the 68 closures announced for the north/central and south coasts have been implemented thus far. It’s not clear whether the rest of them will actually be shut down.

“They said … the balance will be considered after consultations with affected parties, so we’ve got to read some caution into this — the minister and [Fisheries and Oceans Canada] have said lots of things in the past,” said Greg Taylor, fisheries advisor with Vancouver-based Watershed Watch Salmon Society.

He noted the department committed to keeping mortality rates for endangered chinook salmon on the south coast below five per cent, a target that has not been met. “They keep on changing the goalposts, so whether [the closures] actually happen or not, I think the jury’s still out on that.”

Fisheries and Oceans Canada said it will make decisions based on monitoring actual salmon returns. “If it turns out that there are significantly more returning, we can open fisheries up accordingly, [and] similarly, for less fish returning, we will close fisheries in-season,” a spokesperson said in an email.

The bar for considering reopening any fisheries currently identified for closure will be significantly higher than it has been, wrote Neil Davis, acting regional director for Pacific fisheries. “[Fisheries and Oceans Canada] is taking a more precautionary approach to the consideration of adequate abundance of target stocks and potential encounters of other, weaker stocks, for example. We’re also looking for long-term increases in abundance rather than just single years that may show higher numbers.”

The minister said the department would implement a compensation program for commercial operators who decide to get out of the industry for good. The department estimates there are about 2,100 licence holders in B.C. and Yukon, although not all licence holders are considered active in the industry.

“This voluntary salmon licence retirement program will provide harvesters with the option to retire their licences for fair market value and will facilitate the transition to a smaller commercial harvesting sector,” the ministry statement said.

The department said it would determine details of the program after consulting First Nations and the commercial sector in the fall and winter.

Taylor, who previously managed a fleet of commercial gillnetters and seiners, said he thinks the closures are necessary to give salmon a fighting chance of survival, but added it’s heartbreaking for the people whose lives and livelihoods are built on what he described as a calling.

He said if Fisheries and Oceans Canada does follow through on its plans to close 60 per cent of the fisheries, most of the fishers will likely retire.

Reset button would shutter 79 Pacific salmon fisheries

According to research compiled by the Central Coast Indigenous Resource Alliance from publicly available data, salmon populations on the central coast have been in steady decline for several decades.

Sockeye experienced a 90 per cent decline between 1950 and 2020; chum stocks declined by 94 per cent since 1954 and continue to decline at a rate of about 3.5 per cent every year; pink stocks dropped by an average of 89 per cent since the early 1960s; and spawning coho declined by 51 per cent since 2018 as compared to 2000 to 2015 averages.

While there are anomalies and outliers — populations that are comparatively healthy — these numbers reflect a trend across the province. The reasons for the decline are complex and the commercial fleet, which harvests only what the federal department says it can harvest, represents only one of many impacts that have led to the precarious position salmon are in.

Climate change is warming the oceans and increased ocean acidification is impacting the species’ food supply, such as krill and other small fish species. Similarly, the impacts of climate change, including drought and flood events, are affecting the species’ freshwater spawning habitat, in some cases catastrophically. Fish farms have been linked to the transmission of diseases and pests like sea lice to wild populations, and hatchery fish released into the Pacific from Alaska, Japan and other countries compete with wild salmon for food.

Inland, the impacts of oil and gas development and pipeline construction, mining and forestry cumulatively affect important spawning habitat. For example, the mining industry is increasingly under scrutiny for polluting salmon-bearing systems with toxins such as selenium and B.C.’s forest practices have been linked to impacts including increased sediment in spawning habitat and implicated as a major contributor to devastating mega-fires, which exacerbate the warming of streams and rivers.

TC_304671_web_VKA-fishing-82021728151912741.jpg
Fishing boats tied up at Tsehum Harbour in Sidney. Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan announced in late June that her department would be closing nearly 60 per cent of the province’s commercial salmon fisheries to address the precipitous decline of the iconic species. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

As Taylor put it, in his annual salmon forecast, “commercial fishers will pay the price for our collective failure to address climate change, to adapt forest, land-use and water-management practices in recognition of climate change and cumulative impacts, and to manage fisheries with precaution and according to established national and international policies.”

Sarah Murdoch, a senior executive with the Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, told The Narwhal the decision to implement long-term closures to the commercial salmon fisheries is part of a broader, holistic strategy to protect wild salmon.

“Harvesting is not the key driver for the declines — we know that now,” she said in an interview. “But we need to do everything we can.” She said the scale of the closures reflects that need and she’s optimistic about collaborative conservation efforts between the federal, provincial and territorial governments, in partnership with First Nations.

“There’s growing recognition … that you can’t protect salmon without protecting salmon habitat,” she said. “As we adapt for climate change, we’re going to have to be thinking more about landslides and floods and forest fires, and how that impacts not only communities but also impacts resources that we care about, like salmon.”

Whether these closures signal a death knell for an industry that has supported generations of fishers — like the Atlantic cod fishery moratorium implemented in 1992 — or an emergency stop-gap as the harvesters who choose to stay in the business transition to more selective and sustainable fishing techniques depends largely on how Fisheries and Oceans Canada uses available funding and strategizes its approach to recovery efforts.

The B.C. Seafood Alliance, a group representing commercial harvesters and processors, is concerned about how these actions will affect its members and questioned whether the closures will actually accomplish the goal of rebuilding salmon stocks.

“If you look back over the last 30 years, all we’ve actually done is cut back on commercial harvesting and it hasn’t made the slightest bit of difference,” said Christina Burridge, executive director of the group.

Taylor said the federal agency developed several cutting-edge management policies that were never implemented on the West Coast, but could have slowed population declines decades ago.

“The minister was left with a terrible choice: Keep on going or do what she’s doing, hitting the reset button,” he said.

Licence-retirement funding will come from federal investment to rebuild stocks

Mike Reid, aquatics manager with the Heiltsuk Nation, said as difficult as this will be for the commercial fishers, many of whom are Indigenous, the decision was not unexpected.

“Some of the commercial fishers were actually saying it’s about time something was done,” he said. “They’ve been struggling for quite a while — this didn’t happen overnight.”

Burridge agreed and said the past few years have been devastating to the commercial fishing community, noting that around 1,000 licence holders — nearly half the fleet — were unable to fish last year.

Murdoch said she is acutely aware of the impacts to individuals and communities and part of her job is to figure out creative ways of navigating the commercial sector’s transition, including financial support to “soften the blow.”

She added the average age of commercial fishers is over 60 and part of the plan is to provide those licence holders — many of whom have not been actively fishing in recent years — with an exit strategy. “There is an opportunity, hopefully, to let some people retire with dignity and then work with those that want to remain to build something more adaptive and resilient, given climate change.”

Fisheries and Oceans Canada confirmed that funding for the licence-retirement program will come from $647 million earmarked under the Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative. While this initiative was originally designed to include some money for the government to buy back licences and reduce the number of fishers in the sector, both Watershed Watch and the B.C. Seafood Alliance said they believe the government will spend too much on the licence buybacks and not enough on vital restoration projects.

“It needs to be separate, because if [the closures are] going to take out the livelihood of all these people, then the least we can do in the long term is put the money towards rebuilding the stocks,” Burridge said.

She said members of the B.C. Seafood Alliance and representatives of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union estimated the cost of the program to be around $275 million.

Murdoch said the federal department is confident the remaining funds will be sufficient to meet the mandates of the program, which include conservation and stewardship, enhanced hatchery production and integrated management and collaboration with stakeholders.

Carpenter, the gillnetter from Bella Bella, said the federal department needs to throw everything it has into rebuilding stocks, particularly if it plans to close the commercial fisheries. On the other hand, he said if the goal is conservation, it’s going to take at least five years as the salmon complete a life cycle.

“To see any kind of results within that cycle, we’ve got to do our best to try and get all the other things lined up, like getting fish farms out of the water, habitat enhancement and all that,” he said, adding that fish hatcheries will need to play a role in supporting stocks, which could generate employment opportunities for unemployed fishermen.

Burridge noted the impacts of closing over half of the commercial fisheries go far beyond the fishers. In a letter to the minister, she asked, “What about processors who will have to lay off much of their workforce, mainly new Canadians, Indigenous and women, and the damage to vital infrastructure in coastal communities?”

She said the on-shore commercial sector is already in rough shape. For example, there is only one cannery left in the province and in its heyday, B.C. had over 200 canneries along the coast.

“The infrastructure is pretty fragile — you’ve got one offload point in Port Hardy and I think we’re down to one in Rupert these days,” she said. “If they don’t have the volume, eventually they’ll shut down.”

‘It’s the same fish’: recreational fisheries remain open as commercial fisheries close

On the central coast, as the province reopens for travel and tourism, locals are concerned that the commercial closures will do little to protect at-risk populations as recreational fishers flood the region.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada said where commercial fishery closures are in place to conserve specific sockeye, pink and chum salmon stocks, recreational fisheries will also be restricted, but ecreational chinook and coho fisheries “may not be restricted in the same manner as commercial fisheries for these species.”

Burridge said the closure of the commercial coho fishery off the west coast of Haida Gwaii, where populations are healthier, effectively signs a death warrant for many trollers, who have worked closely with Fisheries and Oceans Canada on monitoring, stock assessment and DNA analysis to ensure they are not harvesting at-risk populations. Trolling is a type of fishing that baits fish on lines pulled behind a boat.

“It’s particularly galling when the recreational fishery is still open. If [Fisheries and Oceans Canada] is targeting stocks of concern and the recreational fishery can take full-bag limit, it kind of makes you wonder whether this is more about politics than science.”

Carpenter said the commercial industry is often blamed for declining stocks while the impacts of the recreational fishery are overlooked.

“The sport fishing sector has … a daily limit, but they’re fishing seven days a week, 24/7,” he said. “And here we are tied to the docks.”

Future uncertain for both fish and fishers

Murdoch said she is hopeful the new strategy will not only support salmon populations but will ensure there is a future commercial sector.

“We’re just trying to bring more vision to it and a place for that longer-term conversation rather than just year-to-year fisheries closure decisions,” she said, adding the department doesn’t know how many active licence holders will actually fish a particular species until an opening occurs.

Murdoch said after the licence-retirement program is complete, next steps include developing a strategy for supporting the commercial harvesters that choose to remain.

“Those fishers seem to want to work out a business model and approach that’s viable and sustainable over the next decade — they want to build a future into it. How do we work with them? That might look a little different than how we fished in the past.”

Carpenter said he doesn’t know what he’s going to do, a feeling shared by many in the community, but he added the need to protect salmon stocks is urgent.

“It’s about time — we have to do something,” he said. “We’re in a weird place. I’ve heard talk amongst a lot of guys, a lot of comments: If we don’t act now then it’s done. It’ll literally disappear. And we’re gonna fight over crumbs.

“There’s no two ways about it, something drastic has got to be done. In our area we haven’t seen the fish come back, so we do have to make … sacrifices. And I guess it’s time to do that.”

— With files from Carla Wilson, Times Colonist

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