‘How will they survive?’
It looks more like a picture postcard than a working harbor. A blue heron stands amid cattails and bulrushes. Wild blackberry brambles dot the shores. Overhead, the cries of gulls compete with the melodies of songbirds as the midday sun glistens off bobbi ng masts. There are other places to tie up in Steveston, a fishing village about 20 km south of downtown Vancouver. Its three main marinas are, after all, home to some 650 vessels, making it the largest commercial fishing harbor in British Columbia. But t he bigger slips that line the banks along the South Arm of the Fraser River are hardly as serene as the one at tiny Scotch Pond, a designated heritage fishing co-operative with three dozen members, all independent owner-operators.
Among them is Don Taylor, who, at age 70, still gillnets for salmon from his 35-foot aluminum-hulled boat, the cleverly named Taylor Maid. A gentle, soft-spoken man, Taylor has seen many ups and downs in his 48 years in the fishing business. But ask him a bout Ottawa’s latest plan to revitalize the floundering Pacific salmon fishery, and his anger threatens to shatter Scotch Pond’s striking tranquillity. “What has happened here has happened because of the federal government,” he says bitterly. “And we are the ones who are going to have to bear the brunt of all their mistakes.”
Taylor acknowledges that the West Coast salmon fishery is in deep trouble. Last season, he says, in addition to his Canada Pension and Old Age Security benefits, he took home only $7,000 from his catch-compared with $25,000 just six years ago. Like almost everyone in the B.C. fishing industry, Taylor agrees the current problem is that too many fishermen with too much money tied up in costly licences and sophisticated equipment are chasing too few fish. Fishermen blame declining salmon returns on habitat b eing damaged by logging, and on higher ocean temperatures caused by the so-called El Nino effect that have brought about an overabundance of predators such as mackerel. This year, sockeye returns on the Fraser are expected to be so low that a complete ban on commercial fishing is likely.
But while Taylor agrees that something had to be done to keep the B.C. salmon fishery viable, he and other Steveston fishermen are incensed by Ottawa’s handling of the problem. On March 29, Fisheries Minister Fred Mifflin announced plans to slash the West Coast salmon fleet by half. And to get the process started, Mifflin unveiled an $80-million voluntary licence retirement program. Under a reverse-bid auction, fishermen have until June to submit an offer to sell their licences-now restricted in number bu t freely bought and sold on the open market-back to the government, which will accept the lowest bids.
Taylor’s boat-valued, he says, at $150,000-has been for sale for the past year. But given the current state of the fishery, he has not had a single bite. Now facing retirement, Taylor worries that he will be unable to get a decent price. “I stand to take a real beating if I just sell my licence to the government,” he says. “I’m not going to let them have it for nothing.” His voice rising slightly, he adds: “And if I sell my licence, what do I do with my boat? They are the ones who are responsible for buil ding the fleet up, and now they’re saying to us, ‘We’re not throwing any money in; you’ve got to reduce the fleet.’ It’s bloody unfair.”
Many British Columbians are convinced that the B.C. fishery is being treated unfairly by Ottawa. “Federal support for out-of-work salmon workers is nowhere near the $3.5 billion they’ve allocated to the Maritime cod crisis since 1990,” Premier Glen Clark said after Mifflin’s announcement. “The estimated loss of more that 4,000 salmon jobs could devastate our coastal fishing communities, and yet federal officials say there will be no new funding to address the salmon crisis.”
Instead, in addition to the buyback plan, Ottawa is introducing major licensing changes. Under so-called area licensing, fishing permits-which previously allowed holders to ply the entire coast-will now restrict them to specific areas. Each licence holder must choose a single area and stay there permanently. And, starting next year, fishermen will no longer be allowed to freely change the sort of fishing gear they use. Instead, they will have to restrict themselves to one gear type. But under a controvers ial program known as “licence stacking,” a single vessel will be permitted to fish more than one area or use different types of gear if its owner purchases the appropriate licences from people leaving the industry.
That has some critics complaining that Ottawa’s policy favors the wealthy. “Small, independent owner-operators and certainly all of the crewmen that currently make up the industry are going to be seriously disadvantaged,” argues Dennis Brown, vice-preside nt of the Vancouver-based United Fishermen & Allied Workers’ Union. Given the cyclical nature of salmon returns, says Brown, only those who can stack their licences are likely to survive-and that is something the average fishermen cannot afford to do. “Th e small guy has got a great bullet aimed at his head here,” says Brown.
That opinion is echoed by fishermen on Scotch Pond. “I’m on a pension,” says Taylor with resignation. “I’ll pick one area and take what comes. But the younger people raising families who have got a mortgage will have to have another licence in another are a to fish. If they haven’t got the money, they’re going to be forced out. I don’t know how the hell they are going to survive.”
Like Taylor, Josef Bauer worries that small coastal fishing communities will be hardest hit. “I’ve no doubt this will result in an economic crisis,” says Bauer, 58, a solid man with a bushy salt-and-pepper beard who has been fishing in his home town of St eveston since he was a teen. He blames the current crisis on the government’s policy of limiting licences, while allowing existing permits to be bought and sold like commodities. “The money in the last few years has been in speculation, not in the actual catching of fish,” he says. “If they had licensed fishermen individually, like professionals, you would have had only the people in it who loved it as a lifestyle-not those who were in it to speculate on how much they could get for flipping a licence and interested in raping the resource.”
For his part, Taylor says that the salmon fishery will rebound only when Ottawa is prepared to sink more money and manpower into protecting spawning streams. “You can cut out all the commercial fishermen and all the sports fishermen and you are still goin g to lose your fish if you don’t look after your habitat,” he warns. “You can’t destroy the rivers where they spawn and expect to have fish. Once they are gone, they are gone forever.” Meanwhile, the veteran fisherman has begun to rethink British Columbia ‘s place in Confederation. “There is a small but growing secessionist movement in this province,” he says, “and I’ve got to tell you that if there was a referendum tomorrow, I wouldn’t be the only fisherman to vote to leave Canada. You can quote me on tha t.”