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

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

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

Paving the Road to Hell

As discussed in depth in Part One of West Coast Fisheries Management: For Whose Benefit?, the Pacific halibut fishery went from being unregulated to having a Total Allowable Catch (TAC) system that some people viewed as a dangerous failure of management.

Phil would disagree with this assessment of the TAC system. And, from his point of view, I can see why. He was kind enough to meet with The Sealives Initiative at Henry Hageman’s house. Henry is Haida and is the elder of his family. He had his own boats for about 40 years, and is a well-respected member of the community.

 Phil Parish in Massett, Haida Gwaii

Phil Parish in Massett, Haida Gwaii

In the opinion of Phil and Henry, the TAC system allowed for fishermen and fishing communities to make a decent living and receive at least market value for the fish they caught. But there was a new system about to be brought into place in British Columbia, a system that would ostensibly fix many of the issues that had arisen under the TAC mechanism.

Under the new system there would be an expanded season - in fact, it could run all year - thus ending the race-for-fish derby that had evolved under the TAC system. This would in turn increase safety both for the marine environment and the fishermen, thus decreasing fatalities. It would also increase the market price of fish by enabling more of it to be sold fresh.

At first glance, it sounded good. Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQ) were about to be introduced to British Columbia’s commercial halibut fishery.

According to Phil, this was the real reason ITQs were being introduced in the first place, so a small group of individuals could monopolize the industry.

What are ITQs, though, you ask? Firstly, they were intended to create something of lasting value to ensure fishermen would have a vested interest in the health of the fishery. Simply put, ITQs started with the DFO dividing up the Total Allowable Catch into something that resembles shares or stocks in a company. In this case, that company is a public company called Halibut and the stock or share is Quota (the ‘Q’ in ITQ). Then, they handed out these quotas, based on calculations they had made, to Individual (the ‘I’ in ITQ) boats/operators that had halibut licences. Anyone who had quota could then Transfer (the ‘T’ in ITQ) it to anyone else for any price they saw fit. Thus, Individual Transferable Quotas.

The Disingenuous Fisheries Organization?

One could reasonably presume the total amount would be divided amongst the fleet in some equitable manner. After all, this new scheme was coming down through the then-Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Federal Ministry charged with taking care of fisheries stewardship on behalf of the people. As you will see, however, while the majority of fishermen wanted these quota to be doled out in equal portions to each boat, the DFO was persuaded to do so based on boat size. This meant the allocation was heavily skewed to favor a small percentage of the fleet. According to Phil, this was the real reason ITQs were being introduced in the first place - so a small group of individuals could monopolize the industry.

In 1990, the DFO decided they would hold meetings with BC’s halibut fishery stakeholders to come up with a plan for the implementation of an ITQ system. A year earlier, the DFO had been approached by a small group of BC commercial halibut licence-holders with the goal of getting an ITQ system put in place. Ironically, considering the frozen snail’s pace at which Canadian government agencies tend to work, and having taken six decades to decide to come up with a plan to fix the TAC system themselves, Phil told us the DFO now gave rest of the halibut fleet just six days to organize themselves, come up with a plan, and attend the meetings. This was a fleet of 210 independent operators up and down the coast, a fleet that had not previously been organized in any sense of the word.

How did they want things to turn out? What did the vast majority of the fishermen whose livelihoods were going to be affected want?

Phil knew many of the senior fishermen of the halibut fleet. Using his contacts, he managed to quickly put together a group of representatives to attend the meetings. One of the stipulations for attending the meetings was that you had to represent at least 20 fishermen, and Phil’s group represented 70% of the entire fleet. He knew if they did not organize quickly and present a coherent strategy that they would be left out of the decision process. What he may not have known at that time was that the fishermen he brought to the table had already been already shut out of that process and, according to him, these meetings were all for show.

Falling on Deaf Ears

So, now that he’d gotten a large enough group together, these independent fishermen had to decide what angle they wanted to go forward with as a group. How did they want things to turn out? What did the vast majority of the fishermen whose livelihoods were going to be affected want? Upon being asked, he says they all told him, individually and without him making any suggestions, that they wanted to start off under the ITQ system on an equal footing - every licence gets an equal share.

According to Phil, the DFO and the small group of fishermen who’d gotten the ITQ ball rolling had decided in advance that the size of quota given to each participant would be based on the size of the boat being used. He says they were told straight up that under no circumstances would the policy-makers listen to anything the fishermen majority he helped represent had to say about an equal share, no matter how many of them there were.

The end result, after a year and half of what Phil says were useless meetings, was that the majority of the quota ended up in the hands of just 26 fishermen. The smaller boat fleet, a majority, had, before the implementation of ITQs, been in the process of becoming very competent and were harvesting the bulk of the halibut because of their speed and efficiency. Under the new management regime, they received far less than he says they were entitled to, or traditionally had ever caught.

Lacking Logic

Now, I have been doing a lot of research on Pacific halibut; on catch rates, season lengths, number of licences, boats, fishermen, and fish. I have read reports spanning over a century, and ranging from government websites, scientific papers and news organizations, to blogs. There is no rational reason I can think of to have doled the quota out based on boat size. Each boat would know how much halibut it could catch that year based on the quota it had. Boats would not have to race. Each boat could have caught an equal amount as any other boat in any given year. If all the quota had been doled out equally amongst each participant, there should be no reason that each boat could not have filled their quota (barring mechanical difficulties). As long as the stock was properly managed, boat size would not have been an issue. Given this. you can see why Phil and Henry see collusion between the DFO and the operators of the few large boats who received most of the quota as the obvious culprit.

But the collusion, we were told, did not end there.

A Nod, A Wink, A Swindle Complete

Prior to the ITQ system, the DFO had negotiated the halibut quotas with groups of fishermen representing their part of the industry. The DFO were also in charge of enforcement and allocations, but Phil says they wanted to privatize that aspect, which would have the added benefit of helping them ditch any responsibility. He surmises that the small group that brought ITQs up to the DFO were also looking to take over enforcement. He holds this opinion because that is exactly what happened next. He says they set up enforcement companies - what he calls special interest groups - that were very closely related to the fishermen who held the majority of the quota. He says they had access to the computer records from the DFO, which enabled them to come up with a plan for them to take over enforcement.

Phil says he and the fishermen he represented ended up going to court over the ITQ system and that the DFO was found to have illegally orchestrated small measures that would change drastically the amount of fish each fisherman would get right up until the last day of the establishment of the system. What is more, he has proof, since he and a few others tape recorded all the meetings over the two years they took place.

“If they didn’t like your political opinion, they would be reviewing your film footage until you were no longer in the industry. Nothing to do with conservation of fish or anything. It was just a means of harassment.”

He says the DFO were recorded saying that one measure they were implementing would, “Screw half the fishermen on the coast.” When they went to court and the judge heard this, he said that the system had obviously been implemented in a very contrived fashion, but the ITQ system implementation remained. As an aside, Phil also told us that ITQs were also being introduced at the same time for black cod and resulted in the number of eligible license holders dropping from about 2,000 to just six. That was an $80-million annual fishery.

After the court case, Phil says, “the DFO realized they had a pariah working for them, which was Bruce Turris, and he was relieved of his position. The fishermen who had organized the monitoring group hired him immediately to work for them to do the enforcement. What they did is they had a $60 per hour fee (at that time) for reviewing your film footage. They have a camera on deck that has to be running when the boat is fishing. If they didn’t like your political opinion, they would be reviewing your film footage until you were no longer in the industry. Nothing to do with conservation of fish or anything. It was just a means of harassment.”

ITQs are a system born out of good intentions, but they got off to a shaky start in BC. Thanks to the gross inequity of how quota shares were doled out, the whole scheme became rooted in ill-will.

But this was only a harbinger of troubles to come.

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