Friday, January 31, 2020

New report from UNIFOR-UFAWU points to DFO measures as making salmon fishery crisis worse

A new report from UNIFOR-UFAWU is laying much of the troubles of the West Coast Salmon fishery on the doorstep of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, with measures and decades of regulatory mismanagement that are leaving fish harvesters facing financial ruin.

The document released on Wednesday charts a fishery of artificially low limits and dropping landed values that have served undermine the livelihoods on the entire commercial fishing fleet, as well as to have had a dire impact on communities up and down the British Columbia coast.

“The federal government created a commercial fishing economy so precarious that when the salmon collapsed this year, the industry went with it. Commercial salmon fishing may never recover.” -- Jerry Dias, Unifor National President

The introduction to the report serves to set the scene of the 2019 salmon season and highlights how the dismal returns have created hardship for those in the industry.

The 2019 salmon season has been devastating for BC’s fishermen, ancillary workers and processing companies. In 2019, the total number of salmon commercially harvested in BC was 629,000 salmon or 3,583,000 pounds, the lowest catch in 70 years. The value was 15 million dollars, the lowest landed value paid to fishermen since 1951.

From their earnings, fishermen have to first pay their pre-season expenses of DFO licence fees, insurance, moorage, gear storage, and prep for their boats and engines. Fishermen also have up-front fishing expenses (fuel, grub, inseason repairs to their boats and gear) that they must pay during the season. When expenses are deducted, there is not much left to take home to feed their families and none left to look after their boats over the winter.

Shoreworkers, and others who are dependent on salmon for work, saw little this summer. A plant can process well over 3 million pounds in a season so the 2019 harvest of 3.5 million pounds was spread thin between BC’s many processing plants – resulting in little or no work for plant workers. Most of the salmon in our local markets have been sourced from northern Alaska or Russia, which have had a banner year, unlike BC and southern Alaska.

Also making for another season of misery was the impact of climate change on the industry, something the union document describes as a crisis situation.

Climate change and its various impacts on salmon have created a crisis; salmon did not return to BC from the North Pacific where they over-winter. Who knows if this pattern of low salmon returns will continue? But until there is a climate change adaptation plan for commercial fishing people and fish processors, government needs to ante-up and give fishermen and ancillary workers financial support. 

Fishermen lost between 30% and 100% of their income, before expenses. Fish processing companies, who have had little salmon to process and therefor no revenue are finding it impossible to make loans to assist fishermen with their vessel costs. Skilled deckhands, shoreworkers, net menders, tendermen and other ancillary workers, unable to make a living will vacate the industry, leaving no one to train future generations. Infrastructure costs, whether they be for boat, gear or processing facilities are ongoing whether there is a large fishery or no fishery at all. Infrastructure cannot be maintained when there are little to no earnings

As part of a response, the union has once again reinforced their call for federal government disaster relief for workers and their families, as well as for the government to assist the industry in developing a climate change adaptation plan.

“Help from the federal government is beyond urgent. Hundreds of fish harvesters are facing financial ruin after decades of fisheries regulation mismanagement.” -- Joy Thorkelson, president of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union (UFAWU)-Unifor

The look ahead for the union isn't one that is a hopeful one at the moment, with the report noting how the 2020 season looks to be set follow the lead of 2019 on the Pacific coast.

The future looks bleak. 2020 is predicted to be as bad as 2019 all across the BC coast. The Big Bar slide will further restrict any possible Fraser fishery as work to create fish passage will likely not be fully completed in 2020 and it will take years to rebuild damaged upper Fraser salmon stocks. Licensing measures prevent fishermen from easily moving into another species fishery and as ocean conditions become less and less favourable for cold water BC fish, other fisheries will also become at risk.

It is time for the Federal and Provincial governments to sit down with fishermen and ancillary workers to discuss the future of BC’s fishing industry. What can be done to keep a fishing fleet in viable condition? To attract new entrants? To pass on fishing skills? To meet First Nations aspirations? To assist and engage fishing communities in retaining economic value from our fisheries? What changes need to be made?

When it comes to hearing back from the Federal Minister of Fisheries, the office at times seems to be more a stop in the Witness relocation program, the last Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, a Vancouver area MP, managed to go an entire mandate without making a stop on the North Coast.

The latest minister to be tasked with the Fisheries file is Bernadette Jordan, the Nova Scotia MP was appointed to cabinet following the recent election of the minority Liberal govern,ent

Past invitations to the Federal Ministers of the past to come to the city have all seemingly gone un-answered, something which seems to put the North Coast at times out of sight and out of mind when it comes the struggles for those in the fishery.

And that theme of inaction is one that makes for the conclusion to the report, with the renewed call for constructive measures from the Federal government.

So far, DFO and the Minister responsible for Fisheries and, moreover, responsible for the people engaged in the fisheries, are not answering. This Updated Report provides sufficient information to show that BC fishermen and ancillary workers are not ‘crying wolf’. All the evidence points to the rapidly approaching end of the commercial salmon fishery in BC and the end of the iconic BC fisherman. It is incumbent on governments to work with the people who rely on the commercial fishery to figure a way out of this crisis.

You can access the full report from UFAWU-Unifor here.

For more notes on the fishery of the North Coast see our archive page here.

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