A B.C. angler’s petition for Ottawa to end blanket closures on recreational salmon fishing has rapidly surpassed the 500 signatures needed by Nov. 4 for reading in the House of Commons.
Amid rallies, opposition speeches and letter writing campaigns, the petition, initiated by Surrey’s Bill Braidwood with 2,478 signatures to date, is the latest show of frustration among anglers this summer up and down the coast over Ottawa’s handling of Pacific salmon declines.
“To not even allow us to keep a hatchery fish defies logic,” Braidwood said in a telephone interview. “You get frustrated because you write to them [DFO], you meet with them, you give them the facts, and then they come out and just ignore you.
“This petition is going to be tabled sometime in December and it’s going to put the [fisheries] minister on the spot. What happens next, what comes of it, God only knows.”
Acting on record-low returns in 2019, the government’s 2020 Fraser River Chinook salmon management measures, released in June, expanded on sweeping closures and restrictions imposed last year. DFO said the restrictions were necessary to protect 12 of 13 wild Fraser River Chinook runs assessed to be at-risk by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Historic low returns to the Skeena River triggered its own set of restrictions and closures.
The angling community and members of the Sport Fishing Advisory Boards (SFAB), among several groups consulted on management plans, railed against the measures for ignoring proposals they said were based on positive scientific findings that support a selective fishery on healthy runs, while avoiding stocks of concern.
Now retired, Braidwood had long-planned to spend this time fishing with his son. It angers him to see openings in First Nations fisheries on wild stocks when common anglers are shut out despite sustainable opportunities. He said he sympthizes with Indigenous rights to fish for food, social and ceremonial purposes, but DFO is locked into a routine of chosing one over the other.
“I’ve been fishing close to 70 years and I’ve never seen fishing like this — ever. I hear DFO talking about runs at risk — okay, I get it. But I’m not seeing it where I am. I know they come at different times and different places … but all of a sudden they start regulating us and shutting us down.
“We have proven through the Avid Anglers program that we are intercepting less than one per cent of these at-risk runs. If you want us to release the wild fish we’ll do it. Just let us keep the hatchery fish.”
The recreational sector is pushing for mass marking of hatchery Chinook, by the removal of their adipose fin, to allow for a sustainable harvest of these fish while wild stocks recover. Currently just 10 per cent of hatchery Chinook are marked.
Braidwood’s petition, supported by the Shadow Minister for Fisheries, Conservative MP for North Okanagan-Shuswap Mel Arnold, advances the SFABs’ key arguments, calling on Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan to amend 2020 measures by acknowledging the existence of healthy runs and allow for a selective fishery that avoids stocks of concern.
It also calls on on the minister to provide details on the development of a recovery strategy for Fraser River salmon, and a commitment to its implementation.
In an emailed statment to Black Press Media, Minister Jordan’s office said the measures were not taken lighty, after extensive consultation with industry representivies, scientists, conservationaists and Indigenous peoples. The restrictions were designed to strengthen conservation, but also provide flexibility to open certain fisheries when the science allows for it.
“Our government fully understands the economic and social impacts these measures will have,” the statement read.
“In response to suggestions from the Sport Fishing Advisory Board, DFO is considering opening several small subareas that are away from migratory corridors. We have already opened one just outside of Sooke, BC and another in Vancouver Harbour because there was sufficient data to show it did not pose serious risk to the salmon stock.”
Groups like the Public Fishery Alliance, which endorsed the petition and protested the 2020 plan outside the Vancouver DFO offices in July, maintains the closures are politically motivated to give the appearance of a recovery strategy in the absence of an actual plan to combat root causes of the salmon decline, such as habitat degradation, climate change, seal predation, pollution and illegal netting.
Conservative MP for Prince George-Peace River-Northern Rockies, Bob Zimmer, presented the alliance’s concerns in the House of Commons July 21.
“[The] 2020 Fraser Chinook plan ignored viable, balanced proposals [from the SFAB] and ignored input from experts with years of experience that would have upheld conservation values while providing public fishing opportunity,” Zimmer said.
“Instead of acting on measures that can make a real difference to restore fish stocks, the Liberals are scapegoating B.C. anglers who are just trying to put food on their tables.”
The minister’s office defended its effort to be transparent, pointing to the Wild Salmon Policy implementation plan in 2018, in which DFO publishes an annual report detailing stock numbers and the effectivenss of measures to protect and restore populations.
In 2016 the government also launched the Britishh Columbia Salmon Restoration and Innocation Fund with the provincial government, committing $100 million over five years for innovative on-the-ground recovery projects. Other programs targeting the protection of salmon and their habitat include the Oceans Protection Plan, the Coastal Restoration Fund and the Pacific Salmon Endowment Fund.
“Additionally, restoring natural fish passage at the Big Bar rockslide is a top priority for our government,” the minister’s office stated. “We have poured an incredible amount of resources into that work to ensure we are successful in in this effort.
“We know that many fishers and business owners will be impacted by the Fisheries management measures, and we take their concerns very seriously. These decisions are very difficult, but they are necessary if we want to see this species survive and return to its former abundance.”
Despite the government actions, in a scathing letter to Minister Jordan, the president of the BC Wildlife Federation, Bill Bosch, questioned the purpose and competency of DFO and called for the agency to be independently reviewed and rebuilt from the ground up.
“There is no transparency, no accountability, and no trust while there are fewer and fewer salmon,” Bosch wrote. “DFO is a failed agency that no longer manages for the well-being of fish or the public interest. Instead, DFO is now focused exclusively on cutting back the public fishery to give the appearance it is doing something while managing for political benefit. This management approach is unravelling the social fabric of the public fishery, dividing users and communities and bankrupting service providers.”
On B.C.’s north coast restrictions on the recrecreational fishery differ from the south, but anglers echo similar concerns over DFO transparency.
COVID-19 travel restrictions and social distancing requirements has drastically curtailed angling opportunities, but in a region where Chinook are available year round anglers counted on opportunities in the winter to catch their annual limit of 30 fish.
David Lewis, the Prince Rupert chairperson of the SFAB said DFO took that harvest reduction of 22,000 Chinook and reallocated it to the commercial fishery without accounting for the exceptional reasons why the recreational fishery was underutilized this year.
“They’re realocating the fish we haven’t caught but that’s because we haven’t been allowed to catch them,” Lewis said.
“People here can fish 12 months out of the year. To cut it back for no reason and give it to the commercial fleet makes no sense at all,” Lewis said.
A lot of people in the north rely on the public fishery for food, he added. If anything, the quota for anglers should be increased to balance out the low harvest rates so far this year.
“If it’s a real conservation concern, let’s treat it as a conservation concern. If it’s politics, let’s forget about it. Let’s put science back into these choices.”
B.C.’s public fishery is worth $1.1 billion in revenue and supports 9,000 direct jobs.
Owen Bird, executive director for the Sport Fishing Institute of British Columbia (SFI) admits the sector lacks the political influence shared by the commercial and First Nations fisheries but hopes British Columbians will see the social and economic importance of a public fishery and write to their MPs.
“It affects tourism in small communities, so many small businesses. Those 300,000 [local] licence holders are spreading money throughout the province to more than just the 9,000 jobs that the public fishery supports … The public fishery is based on expectations and opportunity, not just the amount of the harvest.
“If the public understands they have an opportunity to go out fishing, they’re going to go fishing.”