By Stephen Vogler
When Whistlerites think of fishing, it usually entails a rod slung over the shoulder, a picnic lunch and a walk through the forest to their favourite spot on the river or lake. But to a small percentage of locals, fishing means taking a relatively small boat out on the rugged Pacific Ocean, putting in long days of hard work and, when things are going well, bringing in enough fish to support themselves and their families. Whistler has been a winter home for a number of commercial fishers for years, but with reports of declining fish stocks, a government plan to reduce the fleet and a host of other factors, it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a living from fishing on the West Coast.
"On Monday I was an electrician, on Tuesday a plumber and on Wednesday an accountant," Ross Kentwell jokes with me at his home in Alpine Meadows. Kentwell has fished the B.C. coast for 21 years and has owned a seine boat for 17 of them. While he used to fish at least six months of the year, this year he has been out for only three days, so far. The area Kentwell can fish has also been reduced over the years to about one-tenth of what it once was.
"It was a real adventure when I started. You could fish different areas up and down the coast. But as the DFO's budget is reduced, they've tried to make it easier to manage. They've taken the adventure out of it."
Seine fishermen like Kentwell have been the hardest hit this year, partly because they have the capacity to pull in the most fish in the shortest period of time. After last year's poor return of Fraser River sockeye, the DFO is cautious about a seine fishery opening.
"With gill netters the catch rate is so small that they (DFO) can shut it down anytime," Kentwell says. "But with us, if we just happen to be in a real big mess of fish, zoom, they're already on the boat."
On the other hand, if the fish have already gone through prior to the opening, as happened with this year's two-day opening in the Straight of Juan De Fuca, seine fishers are left with nothing in their nets.
But it is not only seiners who are being affected by the DFO's new management strategy. Under the Mifflin Plan, the government plans to reduce the entire commercial fleet by 50 per cent through license buybacks (20 per cent this year, and the remainder over the next 10 years). They are also bringing in area licensing so fishers must choose one area to fish unless they buy additional licenses worth up to half a million dollars. Kentwell believes the reduction of the fleet will help the DFO to control fish stocks, but believes the $80 million for the entire program is a meagre offer for the West Coast fishery.
"They know that they didn't have to offer too many tax incentives or anything because the industry is down on its knees. Guys are going to have to sell... The optimists are the guys that say 'alright, I'm hanging on until next year because next year is going to be good.'"
Kentwell is one of those optimists. He believes the fishery, and particularly Fraser River sockeye stocks, are resilient. "All the Fraser River cycles have been doing really well. Last year was the first time it failed in about 20 years," he says. Next year's sockeye run is expected to be large because the brood year of three years ago had an extremely healthy return.
Still, with all the current pressures on the salmon fishery, Kentwell sees the need for diversification. "People are getting out of salmon into other fisheries. Even the guys that aren't selling out realize that they have to diversify because the income isn't there in salmon."
If he and his partner were to sell their seiner in a few years, Kentwell would consider getting into anything from gill netting to crab or prawn fishing.
"Fishing's still preferable to the real world," he says with a laugh. "It's a great lifestyle. It's just a matter of sustaining it."
Sustaining the fishery is exactly what Jim Horner, a troller and long-time Whistler resident, is concerned about. Horner has fished on the coast for 22 years and has owned a boat for 20. He has serious concerns about whether his three-and-a-half year old son Max will ever have the opportunity to fish on the West Coast. After fishing in the Queen Charlottes this summer, Horner says, "It was sad coming home. I stopped at a lot of the small communities. A lot of boats I've known forever will never be fishing again."
In communities like these, the buyback of licenses and limiting of fishing grounds can spell the demise of the town itself. And fishers can't just get a job doing something else because without the primary industry intact, no one can afford to stay.
But Horner doesn't see the license buyback and other efforts by the DFO as all bad. "I'm of the opinion that they haven't done such a bad job." He points to the fact that other fisheries around the world are in much worse shape than our own, and that without controls from the DFO, the fishery might have been annihilated long ago. He says the government has also been effective in making the forest industry more aware of its impact on the fishing resource.
While Horner believes the first round of buybacks might help in controlling the fishery, he's unhappy with the new area licensing and allocation of fish quotas.
"The majority of boats chose a north coast license, where I've always fished," he explains. "Next year, no sockeye can be caught on the north coast, only the south coast." Without an allocation for next year's sockeye, trollers on the north coast will loose a significant part of their income. But Horner is also concerned about the sockeye fishery in the Straight of Georgia. With the entire allocation of sockeye centred on the south coast there will be a much higher by-catch (the unintended catch of other species) of coho and spring salmon than there would be in the open ocean on the north coast. Those species which end up in the by-catch are exactly the ones which need rebuilding in the Straight of Georgia.
Area licensing will also lead to the "stacking" of licenses by those with enough capital. Jimmy Pattison's Canadian Fishing Company already owns 47 seiners, while Galen Weston's B.C. Packers owns 93. In 1993 these two men owned the rights to 1.8 million sockeye, approximately three times the entire native allocation for the province. Horner says he is against stacking of licenses because it will enable companies like these to buy up even more licenses from the smaller, independent fishers on the coast.
Another concern for commercial fishers like Horner is the growing sport fishing industry. "We have such a huge number of sport fishing boats. They don't realize they have such a huge impact on the resource," he says. While the amount of fish each sport fisher can keep is limited, if you add up all the operations on the coast, the numbers become significant. Horner also maintains that the mortality rate of catch and release is immense. "In the ocean it's a jungle," he says. "They play it out dead tired, then they take a picture of it. Then it's dinner for ling cods, sea lions, sharks, etc."
Scott Fennell is another Whistler troller who has fished the B.C. coast for 17 years. He shares the same scepticism as Horner over the sport fishery's practice of catching and releasing salmon. "We don't know what it does to the fish by the time it gets up to the stream either," he says. "They're fairly delicate in a lot of senses. Nobody's figured out whether a sport-caught fish can spawn or not." Fennell also believes the sports fishers could have just as enjoyable an experience without catching as many fish as they are now.
"If one tourist goes up and catches one fish a day, they'll still be very happy," he says.
Fennell also has serious concerns over the impact of fish farming on natural stocks of wild salmon. "In Canada, our government is risking the wealth of the Fraser River by allowing fish farming to go on — knowing what's happened in Norway."
Extensive fish farming in Norway has spread diseases to wild stocks of salmon. As a result of the contamination, they have had to sterilize close to 30 of their most important river systems with powerful chemicals. Horner concurs that fish farms present a huge risk of decimating wild salmon stocks on the West Coast.
"The (farmed) Atlantic salmon have diseases," he says. "Ninety per cent of their food is chemical — it's not healthy for the consumer or the fishery."
Fennell also suggests that, apart from being a threat to the environment, farmed fish have driven the price of salmon down by glutting the world salmon market.
Another issue which Whistler's commercial fishers are concerned about is the possibility of native commercial fisheries opening on the rivers. Under the Aboriginal Fisheries Policy, the DFO will allow native bands to sell a certain amount of fish from the river if they can prove their entitlement. Some of the local commercial fishers regard the new policy as illegal.
"The DFO went behind closed doors, disregarded the rule of law of Canada and started creating policies just to please native pressures to start fishing the river," Fennell says. He says a commercial river fishery is a bad idea because it won't be enforceable, it takes allocations of fish directly from commercial fishers without any compensation, and the value of fish in the river is only 20 per cent to 30 per cent of those caught in the open ocean.
Kentwell and Horner share the same concerns. "Nobody has any qualms about giving them (natives) a few hundred thousand fish for food," Kentwell says, "but they (government) can't just take fish out of our allocation and give it to the natives. They have to come in and compensate us somehow because that's where we get our livelihood. It's part of the land claims negotiations with the natives, but we're paying for the whole thing — not the general taxpayer."
Horner believes the difficulty of controlling a river fishery could spell disaster for the salmon. "If they open a native commercial (river) fishery, that would have a huge effect on salmon — it could possibly decimate them," he says.
John Williams is a Lil'wat fisher from Mount Currie who offers a different perspective.
"I don't think it would go the way they think," he says. "When about 80,000 people lived here, and their main source of food was fish, the rivers were black. Now there're only about 1,300-1,600 and not all of our people fish."
Williams maintains that native people have the right to fish and that the Indian Act doesn't limit that right to a food fishery. He points out that unemployment on the reserve is 95 per cent and that fishing is one of the few means his people still have of supporting themselves. "All of our economic ways of living have been destroyed and the fish are all that's left."
Williams suggests that native people tend to get blamed for over-fishing despite studies that show the commercial fishery has over-fished for the last 30 years. He says natives in B.C. currently take only about 2 per cent of the total catch, while the rest goes to commercial, sport and recreational fishers. Like the commercial fishers, Williams has serious concerns about the future of the salmon fishery. "Salmon are our staple diet, and if they're gone there's nothing there to replace it. It's just like the buffalo for the plains people," he says.
One issue that native and commercial fishers agree on is that pollution in the rivers is one of the biggest threats to the continuation of a salmon fishery.
"I think if all the people involved in fishing want to preserve the fish on the Fraser," says Williams, "then they should look at the pulp mills and all the sewage and chemicals that are poured into the Fraser system." He also points to hydro-electric projects tampering with water levels and clearcut logging which has dumped silt in rivers and destroyed spawning channels.
Fennell agrees: "The only thing that's undermining it is industry — killing small fish in the rivers. Mom goes up to spawn. If she has babies but they're covered in paint and oil then they're not going to live."
While there will likely always be disputes over allocations of fish between different user groups, the fact that there is agreement on at least some issues is a positive sign. And if next year's return of salmon is as good as expected, it could promote a greater mood of optimism and co-operation among fishers. At the end of this fishing season, Horner already offers a note of cautious optimism.
"Just this year I started thinking that maybe Max will become a fisherman," he says.
In fact, if everyone involved in the fishery focuses their energy on rebuilding stocks, we can look forward to a whole new generation of fishers debating how the resource should be divided up.