Young West Coast fishers made the trek to Ottawa, two in gumboots, to testify and advocate for change in British Columbia’s fisheries management system, causing an immediate ripple effect.
Federal policymakers who are amending the Fisheries Act, or Bill C-68, have submitted a motion to study owner-operator fleets after listening to the independent fishers who want the policy enforced on the West Coast.
“It was so delightful to find that a, there were young fishers, and b, to really discover that these are young scientists, they’re not the typical vision of some old toothless guy out in the boat. [We heard] the struggles that they’re facing trying to make a life out on the water in B.C. especially when their counterparts in Alaska and on the East Coast of Canada are doing really well,” said Ken Hardie, MP for Fleetwood-Port Kells, who is on the standing committee for Fisheries and Oceans Canada and who wants to see the study happen within the next year.
Since being appointed to the committee in 2015, Hardie said the statements from the young West Coast fishers are in line with observations and conversations he’s had before — it’s a profile of an industry that’s not doing very well. The committee is currently reviewing the Fisheries Act and considering ways to improve management of Canadian fisheries.
With less than 72 hours to organize themselves, James Lawson, Cailyn Siider and Chelsey Ellis, flew to the country’s capital to offer their perspectives to the standing committee on April 24.
Lawson, a Heiltsuk band member through his father and Tsimshian on his mother’s side, said water is in his veins and he’ll never be able to walk away from fishing despite countless warnings from crew members.
“They all told me to go away to school and get an education to escape the fisheries. They considered it a dying industry citing sky-high lease prices on quota, insurmountable prices to buy licenses and decreasing opportunity to put the gear in the water squeezing the next generation of fishermen away in a monetary stranglehold,” Lawson said on April 24, to the standing committee.
This is not the same experience for fish harvesters on the East Coast. In the testimony by the three young fishers, members of the committee heard that the average annual income for fishers on the West Coast is nearly $20,000 behind what fishers earn on the East Coast of Canada and Alaska.
Prince Rupert fish harvester, Chelsey Ellis, also spoke to the committee. She comes from three generations of fishermen from Prince Edward Island. She has worked in fisheries on the East Coast and for the past six years, she’s worked on the West Coast as a seafood traceability coordinator and then as a commercial fisher.
“I’ve seen how the owner-operator policy works on the East Coast and how it benefits coastal communities and I feel that the fishermen and communities here are equally worth protection and it should be the same,” Ellis said.
Quotas and licenses
In B.C., fishers lease quotas from owners who have purchased the fishing rights but not on the East Coast of Canada.
In February, the Fisheries for Communities Gathering was held in Vancouver to discuss the status quo, and ways to ensure a brighter future for commercial fish harvesters. One of the biggest issues was the need to review the current system, and the message was delivered to West Coast MPs, asking how their voices could be heard. That was how Ellis, Lawson and Siider were asked to be a witness to the standing committee in April.
In her testimony, Ellis compared B.C.’s fish management to the housing market.
“Houses are no longer a place to live but an investment to make profit from. This creates a speculative market and drives up the cost in the same way owning fishing licences and quota under current policy on the West Coast has become an investment that pays high returns,” she said to the committee.
“Fishermen who are only able to lease licenses and quota by circumstance don’t always have the same long-term vision and goals as independent owner-operators. It creates an attitude of make as much as you can and as quick as you can to offset the huge costs of leasing the licences and quota. If you don’t feel like you have a stake in the future, why would you be worried about the long-term?”
Her words, and the words of her colleagues, have left their hooks in the federal policymakers.
On May 3, when the committee heard testimony from BC Seafood Alliance, the MPs had a few questions related to what they heard from the young independent B.C. fishers.
Christina Burridge, executive director for the BC Seafood Alliance, was against changing the current system in B.C. She was there to emphasize “that stability and predictability in licensing policy and the management framework are essential to all participants in the industry.”
But after her statements, Ken McDonald, an MP from Newfoundland, asked Burridge why the East Coast owner-operator system wouldn’t work on the West Coast.
“Why it wouldn’t work is that we simply don’t have the fish that Atlantic Canada has. That’s why our fisheries have developed in really different ways. In order to solve those problems of sustainability and conservation, we have developed a system that relies on leasing because you have to have quota to cover bycatch. So it’s very difficult for me to see how we could maintain these cutting edge, world leading conservation systems and go to owner-operator for instance,” Burridge said to the committee on May 3.
Fish harvesters on the West Coast will have their chance to speak for or against the current system starting this fall.
Hardie said he plans to spend time speaking with fishers on the coast the week of Nov. 12, when they’re in port and not out fishing. For the study itself, he’s aiming for February 2019.
The study on the regulation of West Coast fisheries would bring committee members to the coast where they will hold hearings and have witnesses give a better understanding of the situation, how it developed, and what isn’t working under the current regime. “And there’s lots of evidence that things aren’t working well,” Hardie said over the phone from Ottawa.
“The output of the committee’s work will be a report that goes to Parliament with recommendations, and in this case, DFO will have 120 days to respond to this. We then have an opportunity to keep pushing and if change is clearly called for, then to basically go after that change.”