Here fishy, fishy, fishy...
Last week, in a move fuelled by the desperation of watching their livelihoods and heritage slip away, BC’s commercial fishermen staged a noisy and messy protest at Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s swank downtown office.
After draping their nets over the plaza at Pender and Burrard, they slipped away to their boats for an illegal fishery that has raised the ire of both the Federal Government and environmentalists.
Feeling they have nothing to lose, some fishermen have cast their nets alongside those of native and recreational fishers – even though commercial boats have been banned from the summer sockeye runs because of fears of mixed-in endangered fall runs like Cultus Lake.
Facing fines and potential jail time, these commercial folks feel particularly excluded as they’ve watched the native food fishery take over 1 million fish this year and, in a big DFO bow to political pressure, a short recreational fishery open up over the Labour Day long weekend.
DFO has been struggling to gain some conservation momentum over the last few years. Citing warming waters and poor run returns, their biologists are very concerned about the state of salmon runs, especially the Fraser sockeye runs.
But the sudden removal of these runs, traditional mainstays of the commercial fishery, from the commercial opening, has left fishermen reeling with little or no opportunity to even recoup their costs on boats, equipment and licenses. Many face bankruptcy and will have to walk away from a traditional way of life.
And, just as with any crisis, fingers start pointing. Both John Cummins, the outspoken Conservative fisheries advocate and the Federal NDP fisheries critic have been harsh in their criticism of Federal Fisheries Minister, Gerald Regan’s handling of the file.
They say he’s been Minister for two years but hasn’t even sat down with the Fisherman’s Union. An accusation backed up by Fishermen Union spokesman, Garth Mirau.
Others are taking square aim at the native food fishery policy of DFO and the Federal Government, saying what started as an excellent way to respect the role that salmon played in First Nation’s culture has taken a bizarre turn to a pseudo-commercial fishery with hundreds of thousands of fish sold into a retail and restaurant black market.
Even First Nations’ chiefs admit that they sell the fish for cash so that they can buy groceries – a strange back-handed food fishery in the eyes of many observers.
Clearly there is no simple answer. A declining resource means that we must decide if we all share in it, in smaller amounts, or if we decide to give to those who are deemed more worthy of gaining access.
Perhaps we just shut it down altogether and those folks who scorn farmed salmon will have to suffer.
But DFO is going to have to demonstrate some leadership on this file. Minister Regan saw what the collapse of stocks did to the East Coast cod fishery. Many are hoping that he doesn’t allow a repeat of that disaster.
Maybe that’s asking for too much for a Federal Minister who hasn’t even bothered popping out to meet with the most affected group – our commercial fishermen.
A version of this was published today in 24 Hours Daily