Independent fishermen: an endangered species?
The salmon fishery is the last in B.C. to hold out against a market-based management system. Critics accuse the feds of pitting independent fishermen against corporate giants, but what if this new approach gives the little guy some much-needed financial c
Classic rock blares from the wheelhouse radio. Skipper Quincy Sample layers on fibreglass in a waist-deep cockpit at the stern of his boat, making repairs to the 42-foot vessel in anticipation of a commercial salmon fishery opening in June. Gulls squawk as the guy lines of sailboats moored nearby sing in the breeze.
Sample, 43, was born in Saskatoon but raised within spitting distance of the ocean in Pender Harbour on the Sunshine Coast. He's been fishing since his early teens. His language is as salty as the air on this spring afternoon at Comox Harbour, where he ties up the Esther Sample (christened after his wife) when not chasing halibut, herring, cod or salmon. When it comes to making a living, commercial fishing is all Sample has ever known.
“I can't imagine doing anything else,” he says as he climbs out of the cockpit, looking slightly intoxicated from the epoxy fumes. “I'll always be a fisherman.”
The commercial salmon fishing game can be seductive, but the rules keep changing. Young fisherman face rising entry costs, and striking a balance between commerce and sustainability remains as elusive as it was early last century, when boats netted a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Fraser River sockeye. Since 1990 the province's wild salmon harvest has declined from nearly 100,000 tonnes to about 20,000, with a wholesale value of between $150 million and $170 million, according to the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture. As for independent fishermen like Quincy Sample, they're watching the increasing corporatization of their industry and the concentration of fishing rights in fewer hands.
Many critics point to Fisheries and Oceans Canada (the DFO) and its individual transferable quotas, or ITQS. When it emerged in the 1970s, this made-in-b.c. fisheries management concept aimed to address what was considered an unten- able situation: fishermen racing to catch as much they could of the quota assigned to a particular stock. The DFO disliked the so-called derby fishery for several reasons. Besides leading to more fish being caught than were allocated, it threatened crew safety because of its competitiveness and made conservation-based management tough.
ITQS gave fishermen a designated amount of quota, which became a tradable good, like a share on the stock market. Quota can be bought or leased: in the B.C. halibut fishery, fully covered by an ITQ system since 1991, the quota purchase price is more than $100 a pound, according to Ecotrust Canada and the T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation. Although quota began as a number on a piece of paper with modest value, it now looks like a lottery win for fishermen lucky enough to get in early. ITQS removed the race to fish, but they also spawned a clash of ideologies around how commercial fishing is managed.
Joy Thorkelson, a tough- talking Prince Rupert city councillor and a longtime representative of the United Fisherman and Allied Workers' Union ( UFAWU), says ITQS have inflated the cost of quota— discouraging new entrants into commercial fishing—and whittled away fishermen's bottom line. They've also led to the rise of armchair fishermen who make profit from staying at home and leasing out their quota, she adds.
Thorkelson gets furious thinking about how fishing rights and control, thanks to what she considers a concerted effort by the DFO to impose ITQS, have migrated up the food chain to the likes of Canadian Fishing Co. Part of the Jim Pattison Group, Canfisco is a vertically integrated company that owns licences, quota and fishing vessels in most fisheries on the coast, plus processing facilities in B.C. and Alaska that together handle some 20,000 tonnes of salmon annually. (In late 2015, Canfisco closed its Oceanside fish cannery in Prince Rupert, the last in the province, eliminating several hundred seasonal jobs and roughly 20 high-paid trades positions—and further angering the UFAWU.)
Salmon is the last major West Coast fishery to resist full implementation of the ITQ system. The reasons are as complex as the fish are to manage: five species, three fleets ( gillnet, seine and troll) and fishermen's independent streak, strong as a tidal rip. Thorkelson claims that more than 90 per cent of UFAWU members oppose ITQS. So far, the commercial salmon sector remains mostly a derby fishery, with catch limits attached to a stock and gear type during an opening that can last anywhere from a few hours to several days.
The UFAWU is lobbying the DFO to make owner-operator and fleet separation provisions part of any further fishery management changes. It's something that Thorkelson says Atlantic fishermen fought hard for when they won concessions as the agency imposed ITQS on the East Coast. Owner-operator provi- sions require the individual who owns the quota to be on the water fishing it; fleet separation prevents fish buyers and processors from dominating the fishing fleet, whether it's by directly purchasing quota and licences, or offering financing to fishermen in exchange for exclusive rights to their catch.
“What we need is a system that works for working fishermen on the water, and ITQS don't,” Thorkelson says from the UFAWU office in Prince Rupert. “It's becoming more about the stock market and less about the game of fishing.”
Thorkelson has an ally in Evelyn Pinkerton, a maritime anthropologist at SFU'S School of Resource and Environmental Management, who has written extensively about community management and control of fishery resources. Pinkerton argues that a neoliberal attitude has infected the federal fisheries bureaucracy and is playing into the hands of corporations while downloading costs onto everyday working fishermen.
Pinkerton co-authored a 2009 paper called “Elephant in the Room” that assailed the impact of ITQS on the B.C. halibut fishery. In the 1990s that fishery was one of the first to adopt them, following a recommendation by economist Peter Pearse, now an emeritus professor of economics and forestry at UBC, who headed the 1982 Commission on Pacific Fisheries Policy for the DFO. The SFU academic tells Bcbusiness that this led to an investor class “who make more money leasing quota than fishing it,” as well as consolidation of fishery control in the hands of processors like Canfisco. Although the value of the halibut fishery grew by 25 per cent between 1990 and 2007, the proportion that ended up in the pockets of boat crews plunged by 73 per cent, according to Pinkerton.
Her paper sparked a rejoinder from Bruce Turris, a former DFO economist and currently executive manager of the Canadian Groundfish Research and Conservation Council, who cited a “lack
“ITQS make sense because it spreads out the fishing effort over a longer period of time and enables us to get the best highquality product to market in a timely manner” -Rob Morley, Canfisco