Fishery Closures and the Ghosts of Past Mistakes
Canada is closing fisheries and buying back licenses. Will this latest scheme save salmon or sink fishers?
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David Christian, a 63-year-old gill-netter, first heard about the Pacific salmon fishery closures via cellphone while he was getting his 11-meter Grizzly King gill-netter ready to fish for salmon. The news spread quickly across the calm June waters off the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, as fishers jumped on the radio to figure out what had just happened.
The radio chatter was incessant as fishers wondered aloud where they’d be allowed to fish, if they would be out of business, and what the future would hold. “Everyone was freaking out because all of those questions were unanswered,” Christian says, adding this policy will likely end British Columbia’s commercial salmon industry.
Announced on June 29, the closures are part of the latest plan by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to overhaul the Pacific salmon commercial industry in an attempt to save crashing salmon stocks. Pacific salmon harvests are down to just eight percent of their historical averages. The fishers were reacting to the Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative (PSSI), a CAN $647.1-million plan covering everything from habitat restoration to financial aid for fishers. Its goal: save the salmon and shrink the size of the commercial industry built around them.
Under the PSSI, DFO plans to close 57 percent of the 138 Pacific salmon fisheries along the west coast of British Columbia and Yukon. Closures will help protect at-risk salmon stocks from ending up as by-catch, says Neil Davis, DFO acting regional director of fisheries management. Fishing for salmon in the ocean—unlike traditional practices where Indigenous communities fish in rivers—makes it practically impossible to separate at-risk stocks from healthy stocks.
Davis says closures will protect more than 50 salmon stocks, such as the interior Fraser River coho and Okanagan River chinook, which are being evaluated by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada for listing under the Species at Risk Act.
DFO understands that the PSSI will have significant impacts on people who work in the salmon industry. “[But] the status of the stocks demanded difficult decisions be made if we wanted a longer-term future for salmon and therefore for any of the fisheries that depend on salmon,” Davis says.
To harvest salmon, fishers need a commercial license, which outlines the region they can fish and the gear they can use. DFO also determines the target species and the timing of openings. The PSSI closed Area E chum, for example, meaning gill-netters won’t be allowed to harvest Fraser River chum for the 2021 season.
Despite the threat of widespread closures, only 13 fisheries—rather than the 79 included on the PSSI’s list—were closed. However, some of those 79 fisheries have been closed for decades with the unlikely possibility of ever opening in 2021 or beyond.
Pacific salmon populations have been in decline over the past four decades. For most of the past century, Canadian fishers caught an annual average of 24 million salmon. That number was cut in half in the early 1990s, and since then has slowly decreased to just two million in recent years.
Aside from overfishing, salmon have had to weather a number of environmental calamities, including record drought and drying streams, warmer ocean temperatures disrupting their diets, and pathogens introduced by the province’s open-net-pen aquaculture industry.
Commercial salmon fishers are critical of the PSSI, saying that the closures will hurt fishers more than benefit fish.
Through the PSSI, DFO is offering to buy salmon licenses for fair market value to support fishers as the commercial industry shrinks. Davis says an exact dollar amount has yet to be decided, but would likely be based on assessed license values over recent years.
But a license buy-back system might not support the most financially vulnerable, such as crew members who have no stake in a license that’s attached to a boat or a company, or the shore-based processors and packers. Plus, anyone retaining a license has seen the value of that license crash with the announcement—no one wants to buy into an industry with such an uncertain future. Though, the market was already slow prior to the announcement.
This isn’t the first time DFO has overhauled the Pacific salmon commercial industry. And it’s not as if the last two times went smoothly, says Jennifer Silver, an associate professor who studies fisheries management at the University of Guelph in Ontario.
In 1969, the Davis Plan transitioned the industry from one in which anyone could apply for a license to a limited license system. The plan reduced the number of licenses and the size of the commercial fleet, and it created a market for buying and selling licenses. Harvesters who’d caught more than 4,500 kilograms of pink or chum salmon, or the equivalent of other species, during the 1967–68 season got a license they could sell to another fisher when they retired. For anyone who’d caught less than that amount, the government issued a license that expired when they retired. The plan had some unintended consequences.
In a 2019 paper she coauthored, Silver explains how the Davis Plan led to a smaller fleet with more capital. By the 1980s, the total number of vessels in British Columbia’s entire commercial fleet had decreased by 1,000 boats, leaving 6,700. With limited access to the fishery, presumably fishers would make more money, DFO would have an easier time managing a smaller fleet, and overfishing would end. But it didn’t play out that way, Silver says. To maximize their catch, fishers teamed up, or those with more than one salmon license often sold one and used the money to buy better boats and gear, resulting in a higher catch.
The Davis Plan reduced the overall number of boats on the water, but didn’t reduce competition for the salmon resource; fishers just worked harder, Silver says.
By the mid-1990s, salmon stocks were in decline and so were wild salmon prices. Aquaculture was gaining a foothold around the world, and markets were overrun with fresh, year-round salmon that sold for less than wild salmon, explains Greg Taylor, who has 40 years of experience in the salmon industry and works with the nonprofit Watershed Watch Salmon Society.
To spread out the commercial fleet and reduce competition, DFO brought in the 1996 Mifflin Plan. Taylor says the goal was to cut the fleet in half to increase how many salmon each fisher had access to.
Under Mifflin, DFO broke the coastline into regions. They limited licenses to one region and one gear type: seine net, gill net, or trolling lines. Half of Canada’s wild Pacific salmon are caught by seine boats, which loop nets around schools of fish. The other half is divided between gill-netters, which hang nets like a wall in front of migrating salmon, and trollers, which catch salmon by dragging hooks and lines suspended from large trolling poles.
The Mifflin Plan also offered a buy-back system for any fishers interested in retiring their license. Some licenses the government bought back would be reallocated to Indigenous communities through various agreements and overseen by the Pacific Integrated Commercial Fisheries Initiative.
DFO wasn’t the only one offering cash for licenses. The Mifflin Plan didn’t regulate the total number of licenses anyone could hold, which created an opportunity for some of the largest processors to accumulate licenses, Silver says.
In Silver’s 2019 paper, she points out how the Jim Pattison Group now controls a massive chunk of the industry, because it owns 424 licenses—239 through its subsidiary the Canadian Fishing Company, 134 directly, and another 51 through a handful of companies. The next-largest owner is the Northern Native Fishing Corporation with 254 licenses. Around 1,360 people own just one license.
Today, there are 2,109 salmon licenses: 1,457 gill net, 376 troll, 276 seine. There are also a number of First Nations licenses permitting the use of mixed gear types, not including gill nets.
Davis says DFO is very aware of its past mistakes, but fishers aren’t convinced the PSSI will unfold without consequences.
“It’s the most important fishery—culturally, socially, and historically—on the coast,” says James Lawson, 32-year-old president of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union and member of the Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) Nation. Sweeping closures mean fishers will be out of a job and stuck with their expensive gear, boats, insurance, and moorage, he says.
“This is more than a job. They’re taking away their entire lifestyle, their identity. It’s snuffing out an entire culture,” Lawson warns. “They have nothing left—there are going to be people that kill themselves because of this.” Fishers already struggle with an unstable industry that can cause mental health, addiction, and family problems, Lawson says, adding the PSSI could make these impacts 10 times worse. This time, the change is even more serious, he says: the closures permanently shrink the industry rather than restructure it.
An analysis of commercial fishing licenses, published on December 31, 2019, calculated each salmon seine license to be worth $530,000; a troll license, $167,000; and a gill net license, $56,000. If DFO hypothetically bought all salmon licenses at these prices, it would take up 45 percent of the PSSI budget—meaning there’s considerably less money going toward habitat restoration, Lawson says.
Chris Cue, senior director of fishing operations for the Canadian Fishing Company, says a fisher’s license is their retirement plan, which ironically became the norm once the government began restricting fishing licenses. Closing fisheries under the PSSI drops the value of a license “down to nothing,” which means fishers will be taking a steep loss if they sell their licenses to the government for today’s market value.
Christian says he’s holding onto his license for the Grizzly King for now. He’s concerned that DFO will destroy the license after buying it, and that overall access to Pacific salmon will be further reduced. It costs him $750 annually to renew his gill net license, and he says that’s a worthwhile price to maintain access to the resource.
The PSSI could also impact First Nations commercial fisheries.
Commercial access to salmon for most First Nations governments is through agreements with the Canadian government, says Jim Lane, deputy program manager of Uu-a-thluk, the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council’s aquatic resource management organization. DFO issues nations with communal commercial licenses so that Indigenous communities can participate in commercial fisheries under regular commercial fishing license rules. That means those communities are stuck waiting for DFO to open a fishery before they can put nets in the water, just like the rest of the commercial fleet, Lane says.
Five First Nations will likely be exempt from the closures, says Judith Sayers, president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council and a member of the Hupačasath First Nation in Port Alberni, British Columbia.
Earlier this year, the Nuu-chah-nulth won a court case in the BC Court of Appeal that confirmed First Nations rights to commercial fisheries. For the Ahousaht, Hesquiaht, Mowachaht/Muchalaht, Tla-o-qui-aht, and Ehattesaht First Nations on western Vancouver Island, their right to fish salmon is second only to conservation efforts, Sayers says.
She also points to the 1990 Sparrow case when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the rights of First Nations to fish are second only to conservation. The BC Court of Appeal declared that right for the five Nuu-chah-nulth nations, but other Nuu-chah-nulth nations have asserted they have the same rights, Sayers said.
DFO has largely branded the PSSI as a conservation effort, but Sayers isn’t sure if it could currently trump First Nations rights. First Nations would never want to endanger salmon runs when conservation is needed, but the PSSI hasn’t identified any specific conservation plans, she says, adding that conservation should be determined with input from First Nations using Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge.
The PSSI closures will reduce how many fish are caught by the commercial fleet, but it might not reduce how many Pacific salmon are caught overall, Lane says. DFO is currently updating its Pacific Salmon Allocation Policy, which says how many fish can be caught by other main harvesting groups—First Nations for food, social, and ceremonial reasons, and recreational fishers. Allocation will also take into account the five Nuu-chah-nulth nations and their court-recognized right to fish commercially.
Lane says releasing the PSSI before updating the allocation policy seems premature. Saving some fish from commercial nets isn’t saving them if they’ll just be caught by the recreational industry, which hasn’t faced sweeping closures under the PSSI, Lane says. “That’s not conservation, just reallocation,” he says.
Davis says many details are still being fleshed out, and the closure of commercial fisheries is just the first step. He adds that within five years, the majority of DFO’s salmon-saving strategy will be underway. Salmon are cyclical and move from their spawning streams to the ocean, and back, in two- to seven-year cycles. “It could be two to three generations of salmon before we’ll be confident we can truly see meaningful results from our investments here. It’s a long-term challenge, and recovery is a longer-term undertaking,” Davis says.
But even in three generations, the question hovering over the plan is whether salmon can survive droughts, warming waters, and habitat degradation.