Many commercial fishers will be sitting idle this summer following a federal government announcement shutting nearly 60 percent of this year’s salmon fishing season in a desperate effort to save critically endangered salmon stocks. Ottawa also plans to buy back commercial salmon fishing licenses.
Many Pacific salmon runs are verging on collapse due to the impacts of overfishing, climate change, open-pen factory fish farms and habitat destruction.
Last year saw the lowest global salmon catch since 1982, according to the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission, an international organization protecting wild salmon and other fish.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) also plans to close all commercial harvesting on Yukon salmon rivers and reduce recreational fisheries in both the Yukon and BC.
DFO says that many BC coastal fisheries are unlikely to reopen to commercial harvesting for years in an attempt to revive the province’s dwindling salmon populations.
“No fisheries minister wants to make these kinds of decisions, because they’re very difficult and impact people’s livelihoods,” Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan said in a story reported by the National Observer. “(But) no fisheries minister wants to be the minister when the stock collapses, and that’s where we are right now with Pacific salmon.”
Ottawa wants to reduce the size of the fleet. In 2019, the federal government issued 1,582 commercial fishing licenses for West Coast salmon.
DFO is creating a program to buy back licenses at market value from commercial fishers. A report released this spring by United Fish and Allied Workers Union (UFAWU-Unifor) says many commercial harvesters are nearing retirement and struggling to make ends meet after years of poor catches.
UFAWU-Unifor says cutting the season is going to hurt their members. “Today’s closure announcements are deeply concerning. The abruptness of the announcement, and lack of transparency for how these specific closures were decided, have blindsided harvesters,” the UFAWU-Unifor Business Agent Emily Orr said in a news release. “If harvesters are going to be squeezed out of salmon fisheries, the people who earn their livings from those fisheries need to be compensated.”
However, many people concerned about the fate of West Coast salmon say it’s a painful but necessary step. First Nations communities hold 127 communal commercial fishing licenses and will also be hit by the closures. However, they will have the option of shifting to less damaging salmon fishing techniques or using licenses to catch other healthier commercial species, like halibut.
“Some First Nations do harvest commercially, but they’re coming to the realization that something needs to be done to preserve our stocks,” said Chief Dalton Silver, fisheries representative for the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. “I think a lot of our people would feel better if there was a complete halt to the commercial aspect of the fishery (to) allow the stocks to rebuild.”
Silver added that fisheries management also needs an overhaul to better integrate indigenous knowledge.
“I’ve always said that if (Indigenous people) were involved from the very beginning, upon contact, with the management of our resources, we’d all be in a lot better place today.”
Aaron Hill, executive director of Watershed Watch, is calling it a ”collective failure of all of us to manage our salmon and fisheries better over the last decades (to) avoid such drastic measures and their social and economic consequences.”
Hill also believes we need to get much smarter at managing the fishery. That means banning destructive fishing methods like seining and gillnetting and transitioning what remains of the commercial fleet toward more sustainable harvesting techniques such as trolling with hook and line. He says it will not only make the fishery more ecologically sound but also add value to fish.