West Coast Fisheries Management: For Whose Benefit? - Part I

Legacy Part 24 – Phil Parish – Haida Gwaii Resident & Former Fisherman

Text By Blake Butterfield – Co-Editor-in-Chief and Chief Correspondent

Fish In The Rabbit Hole

It is no secret that many people harbor complaints or conspiratorial theories about governments in general, and politicians in particular. Depending on which side of any political spectrum you look, either side will usually have disparate theories as to who is actually controlling who.

Everyone is on the take. Trust no one. The rabbit hole is open for business. Topping the lists of suspects as the real owners of government officials and the departments they are in charge of? Billionaires and huge corporations.

While in Haida Gwaii, we met Phil Parish, a former fisherman who lives in Massett. We ended up speaking with Phil and another former fisherman about occurrences that have led them down a path that has them thinking the worst of our Canadian federal government's marine department, Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). That is where this story leads. It begins, as so much does, with another fish tale.

Phil Parish in Massett, Haida Gwaii.

Phil Parish in Massett, Haida Gwaii.

Old Staple, New Consumers

Commercial fishing of halibut on the West Coast of North America began in 1888, shortly after the completion of the Northern Pacific Railway in the area, as men and small sailing schooners came over from pre-existing Atlantic halibut* fisheries in the East. The boats soon evolved into schooners with auxiliary power and steam-powered boats that had greater range and larger equipment. These were also able to fish the previously more protected, deeper waters, as the closer banks were becoming depleted. Around 1910, there was a great shift to these deeper waters and even larger vessels with ever-larger fishing capacities. Overfishing and expansion followed in the years leading up to World War I, which halted the production of new vessels and stopped the growth of the harvest until 1921.

*[Ed. Note: Except in this instance, all halibut mentioned in this article are Pacific halibut.]

Of course, halibut had been fished for many years on the coast before this commercial industry began. Earlier explorers had often noted that the First Nations they encountered on the West Coast were very adept at catching halibut using wooden hooks from canoes. Captain Cook wrote about the ease of halibut fishing off the coast of Alaska in 1778; La Perouse did so in 1786; and many explorers noted how important halibut was as a food source to West Coast Indigenous peoples. It was up there with salmon, herring and eulachon as dietary staples for many Coastal Nations.

The growing fleet, the efficiency of the equipment and engines for travel, as well as the increasing skills of the fishermen themselves, had simply been putting too much strain on the stock.

But a growing population meant more mouths to feed. According to U.S. census data, in the 50 years between 1870 and 1920, Washington State’s population alone grew by more than 5600% to over 1.3-million, while New York City’s population grew by around 5-million people, a five-fold increase. Halibut was quickly catching on as an easy catch with a lot of food value, as they can weigh over 180 kg (400 lb), and are regularly over 68 kg (150 lb). The acknowledgment of fish as a healthier source of protein than land-raised meat is relatively recent and, while it has added to the current pressure on many fish we eat, it was not really a factor at this time.

The rising human population, growing numbers of fishing vessels with ever-better equipment, declining stocks on the East Coast leading to higher prices where a much larger percentage of the human populace still lives, and the lack of regulations for the Pacific halibut fishery made it obvious something had to be done. In 1923, the Canadian and American governments, in the “first international treaty designed for conservation purposes,” cooperatively created what is now called the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) to tackle these issues.

Gentlemen, Start Your Engines

For the next nine years, the IPHC set the season from mid-February until mid-November, and controls were put in place to limit halibut bycatch (the harvesting of species which are not being targeted) in other fisheries. By 1932, the Commission saw the necessity of setting catch limits. This meant a Total Allowable Catch (TAC), by weight, could be harvested in any one season. The growing fleet, the efficiency of the equipment and engines for travel, as well as the increasing skills of the fishermen themselves, had simply been putting too much strain on the stock.

While a win for the fish, in that there was now an ostensible limit to how many were now being harvested, the effect on the fleet was astounding. With a limit on total weight, but with no system of dividing this number amongst the participants of the fishery, what can only be described as a fishing derby began in earnest. With no limit per licence, each boat would race to catch as many halibut as quickly as they could before the TAC was reached.

With each passing season, ever more boats began to join the race. According to the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “In the 1970s and 1980s, fishing effort increased markedly. The number of licensed vessels (5 net tons or more) increased from 497 in 1975 to 1,204 in 1977 and, in 1981, was 1,462. In addition, there were between 2,000 and 4,000 vessels under 5 net tons which were not licensed by IPHC.”

Lives were lost unnecessarily, and, far worse from an environmental aspect, so were tons of equipment lost to the oceans and left to ghost fish, killing everything they caught.

Where the season used to be open for months at a time, it was soon reduced to weeks, then days. As fishermen and their equipment continued to become ever more efficient, in Alaska, in 1991, what had once been a year-round fishery lasted just two dangerous days.

Whether one finds the idea of an ever-quickening race to be exciting and exhilarating, or something that fills oneself with fear and trepidation probably depends on the person. This writer, with admittedly zero experience at commercial fishing, finds the very concept to be horrifying on multiple levels. We have, however, heard first-hand from a few actual fishermen who enjoyed this competition aspect of the job. Regardless of where one falls on this scale, the halibut fishing derby had real, often negative consequences.

Loss Of Control

Due to the nature of the race to catch fish, boats often went out in weather they should not have. Never knowing when the last trip of the season would come, they often overloaded themselves, trying to get as much as they could before it was over. Lives were lost unnecessarily, and, far worse from an environmental aspect, so were tons of equipment lost to the oceans and left to ghost fish, killing everything they caught.

Economically as well, this derby was disastrous in relative terms. Because the halibut were being caught in such a short span of time, most of it had to be frozen for the markets - they were receiving a year’s supply of fish too quickly. This glut in the markets, and the fact it mostly had to be frozen, meant that every link in the supply chain received far less money than they would have for fresh fish spread out over a longer period of time.

Yet another undesirable effect was that, due to the time it took to weigh catches from so many boats and then make decisions, the actual total weight of fish caught was almost invariably higher than what the TAC was set at. An attempt to slow things down by limiting entry into the industry only led to existing participants increasing their boat and crew sizes and, again, getting more sophisticated equipment.

This spiraling failure of management on so many levels held sway with little change for six decades.

Coming soon: Part II of West Coast Fisheries Management: For Whose Benefit?