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Stakeholders say memos show DFO ‘misled’ public over fishery closure

Debacle is proof of industry’s growing influence over fisheries: Watershed Watch
IN TOO DEEP A commercial seiner is seen fishing for pink salmon near Furry Creek on Wednesday, Aug. 12. Photo by Dave Brown

Internal memos acquired through an Access to Information request suggest that Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) misinformed the public over the sudden closure of a commercial fishery in Squamish this summer, the Watershed Watch Salmon Society claims.

“The media, the public, stakeholders, everybody had been purposefully misled by the DFO,” said Watershed Watch executive director Aaron Hill.

A pink salmon fishery was scheduled to run on Howe Sound from Aug. 10 to 15 but was abruptly shut down after just over two days. As previously reported in Pique, the DFO said the fishery was ended because there wasn’t “the abundance of fish” originally expected, despite prior warnings from local anglers of a weak pink salmon run.

But, according to communications obtained by Watershed Watch, it was closed as a result of violations of the prescribed fishing boundaries and overfishing by commercial vessels.

A departmental letter dated Aug. 12 from Lower Fraser Area program coordinator Debra Sneddon revealed observers had reported two vessels fishing in a prohibited area at the mouth of the Squamish River, one of which had run aground in the process. A third boat was called in to help offload the grounded vessel’s catch, putting three boats on the fishing grounds where only two were permitted. The letter also confirmed information that originally came to light weeks after the closure that one of the seiners had harvested “over double” the allowable daily catch of 25,000 fish. Roughly 138,000 salmon were caught before the fishery was closed.

The violations highlighted a major lack of enforcement presence at the DFO, said Sea to Sky Fisheries Roundtable member Dave Brown.

“We’ve known that DFO did not have what we would consider credible science to make informed decisions on managing fish stocks, but at least I was not aware that they were turning the keys to the henhouse over to industry,” he said.

Documents appear to indicate the first time the federal department discussed the fishery with the Conservation and Protection branch — the enforcement arm of the DFO — was the morning after the violations were reported.

“This is an exploratory fishery being done by a commercial operation with very little DFO oversight,” Brown added.

The DFO claimed the fishery would be used to support the “future management” of pinks, but Watershed Watch consultant Greg Taylor believes turning a test fishery over to industry showed “a clear deficit of thought and planning” that was not in line with the conservation of a public resource.

“What they did was pay industry a bunch of Canada’s fish to run a test fishery… where we have no knowledge of whether a surplus (of pink salmon) exists or not,” he said. “To me, there was a real problem right from the start.”

In the days leading up to the opening, internal concerns over the lack of scientific evidence to warrant a fishery were run up the flagpole.

“I am not opposed to a commercial fishery but I feel we need to be able to justify it biologically,” wrote DFO hatchery technician Brian Klassen in an Aug. 7 email. “A lot of work has gone into rebuilding this population by a lot of groups, so let’s not be too hasty until we have answers to the majority of questions.” According to the information obtained by Watershed Watch, DFO managers were subsequently told to “disregard” Klassen’s email by Corino Salomi, area manager for the Lower Fraser Oceans, Habitat and Enhancement branch.

A later Aug. 10 email showed that individual inquiries from public stakeholders seeking information on the opening were deemed “low to no priority” and would be responded to with prepared “media lines.” The same day, two more emails to DFO sounded the alarm.

“Squamish Nation is absolutely apposed (sic) to this harvesting in Howe Sound without meaningful science-based knowledge on (the) size of this season’s pink run,” read one message from a sender whose name was redacted. DFO is legally obligated to consult with the Squamish First Nation on fishery openings.

A second email from another redacted sender read: “To start a fishery that is 4+ times the size of the last fishery on these fish (in 2013) is beyond ridiculous, it’s criminal.”

Stakeholders are also worried over other possible infractions across B.C. that may have slipped through the cracks.

“As a group that looks at different salmon fisheries around the province, you wonder what’s happening in other areas of the coast where there isn’t the population density that brings the same level of awareness to various fisheries,” Hill said.

Alleged mismanagement at the DFO can be traced to a troubling trend at the department, stakeholders claim: the growing influence of industry over fisheries management.

“More and more, they’re turning the management of a public resource over to a private entity with no independent oversight,” Taylor said. “That is alarming and I think it should be disturbing to anyone who cares about wild salmon.”

Interestingly, a majority of the fishing licenses issued within commercial Area B, which encompasses Howe Sound, are owned or controlled by a single corporate entity: The Jim Pattison Group. The second largest private company in Canada, it raked in $8.4 billion in sales in 2014.

“What we’re moving towards is a bilateral relationship between DFO on one hand and a corporate dominated fishing group on the other,” Taylor warned. “It’s a very closed, insular relationship that I think needs to be opened up to allow some light in.”

With a new government in Parliament and fisheries minister Hunter Tootoo at the helm, the outlook for one of Canada’s most valuable public resources isn’t all doom and gloom, however.

“It seems there is a new wind blowing in from Ottawa and maybe the new minister can crack open a few windows in his Vancouver offices so that the managers there can feel it,” said Hill.

“This scandal provides a very good opportunity to identify the problems and address them, so we’re really hopeful that the DFO will step forward and do that.”

A spokesperson for the DFO could not be reached by deadline.

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