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

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

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

Picking up the story where Part II of this West Coast Fisheries Management story left off: Phil Parish and Henry Hageman were telling us how most of the British Columbia halibut fleet were victims of a collusion between Fisheries Canada (DFO) and a well-organized, large-boat-owning small group of fishermen. But this story goes far beyond just halibut. Phil and Henry will question the very mission of the DFO itself.

The fishermen now paid private companies to enforce regulations. Regulations are there to ensure proper gear is being used and that bycatch (the harvesting of species which are not being targeted) is being properly managed, as well as enabling a counting and weighing system to take place, and enforcement had historically fallen under the umbrella of the DFO.

Fishing Boats – Prince Rupert, BC

Fishing Boats – Prince Rupert, BC

These new enforcement companies had been set up by a small cabal of fishermen who also happened to own the larger boats of the halibut fleet. This small group had been given the lion’s share of halibut Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs), instead of that quota having been handed out in equal proportions to all, like the vast majority of the fleet had desired and requested.

These extra enforcement costs came on top of being denied much of the halibut they had previously been harvesting. Cameras and recording devices for ships are not cheap, and each vessel requires practically the same equipment. In the light of the fact that they were now allowed to catch even fewer fish than before, this cost became more prohibitive as the size of the vessel in question grew smaller.

Henry told us he had to get out of fishing because it was costing him about $900 each trip just for the equipment alone, not to mention crew, fuel, upkeep and ITQ leasing fees.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, in a report on Canada’s Pacific marine fisheries, seems to be under the impression that quota holders pay for monitoring expenses. Every fisherman current and former that we have spoke to have refuted this. They pay the expenses.

This is not a market economy, it is a monopoly. The effect on smaller coastal communities, with fewer options to fall back on, are magnified.

A quick recap—According to Phil and Henry, the majority of the halibut fleet lost money on three fronts when the DFO introduced the ITQ system:

  • The amount of fish they could catch was reduced.

  • They now had to pay for monitoring equipment.

  • They now had to pay for the cost of reviewing their monitoring data.

And, they told us, all three losses to the majority went into the pockets of a small minority.

As is happening in so many other areas of our Western economies, an ever-increasing share of profit gains are steadily going to an ever-decreasing number of the wealthy. This system of inequality is becoming apparent worldwide as society begins to realize that the economic growth model of forever-increasing gains that we lionize is wrongly assumed to be applicable to every situation.

Reaping What Others Sow

For decades, efficiency had reigned, and those who chased efficiency had reaped rewards for their efforts. Now, we are told that the entire paradigm had shifted in one fell swoop, and an industry that had benefited many was now benefiting the few, in a lobbyist-led, poorly regulated and/or corrupt system. 

On a related note, the lack of regulations placed on the transfer of halibut quotas has resulted in much of the quota having been bought in perpetuity by corporations and what are known in the industry as “armchair fishermen.” Armchair fishermen never have to step foot on a boat. They simply buy the quota and then lease it to fishermen at ever-increasing prices.

An important aspect of a market economy is the ability to negotiate prices. As larger corporations and wealthy individuals gained control of more of the halibut quota, one of the stipulations they came up with was to force the fishermen to whom they leased their quota to sell back to them the fish they caught at prices set by the lease sellers.

This is not a market economy, it is a monopoly. The effect on smaller coastal communities, with fewer options to fall back on, are magnified.

Quoting Predictions

The DFO predicted that the halibut quota-purchasing price would, by around 2008, stabilize at between $35-45 per pound after rising from around $20 in the mid-Nineties. Instead of stabilizing at this reasonable price, however, it kept rising. Between 2010 and 2017, the price to purchase halibut quota rose from $43 to $125 per pound.

Unlike the product traded by banks, wild animals are not man-made.

As the price to buy quota increases, so does the price to lease it. Last year, we were told, fishermen paid around $9.00 per pound of quota leased, and then they had to sell their fish for around $9.50 per pound. That’s pretty depressing math if you are thinking about becoming a halibut fishermen. It leaves just $0.50 per pound for fishermen to take care of their boats, pay crew, gas, observation equipment and monitoring costs. Unsurprisingly, we have been told that very few young people are getting involved.

Door on commercial fishing vessel, Prince Rupert, BC

Door on commercial fishing vessel, Prince Rupert, BC

Remember, these are bought in perpetuity. You own halibut quota if you buy it; you can keep it and lease it out every year until you either sell it or pass it on to someone else. Why would you not want the price to rise?

Proponents of unregulated transfers of ITQs say they believe this arrangement will ensure that quota holders will always keep the health of their resource top of mind. After all, holdings in a collapsed fishery would be of no use. Geoffrey Heal and Wolfram Schlenker, in Nature in October 2008, compare fishery quota holders to stockholders with shares in a bank.

Why would stockholders let those banks fail? It would mean their stock would become valueless.

Seems like a great incentive.

Nothing Quantum About the Wild

Except that’s not what happens with all banks. Not long after this opinion was published, the market crash of 2008 saw many banks close and many others on the verge of closing. Then governments intervened. They created more money out of nothing to keep the biggest banks from collapsing. They then handed over this newly created wealth to save those banks and corporations deemed “too big to fail.”

What Heal and Schlenker fail to consider in their misguided analogy is the fact that fish are a part of nature and are not something that can be created out of nothing. Unlike the product traded by banks, wild animals are not man-made. There is yet to be an example where governments can allay the greed of mankind’s over-harvesting of a species for profit by creating more of that species out of thin air. With money, on the other hand, something out of nothing happens continuously.

It was also assumed that quotas would be owned exclusively by fishermen. In BC, that is not the case.

Hide the Bodies

Phil has yet more to say about the DFO and what he views as their poor management of the fisheries. Without mentioning the year, he tells us they began a non-retention program for the Chinook salmon seine fishery.

…the total allowed catch of Chinook for the entire coast for that season, was caught and killed as waste over the course of three days so that they, “would not count towards the total.”

What happens in seine fishing, specifically purse seine fishing for salmon, is that a large net is lowered into the water around a large school of fish. The top and bottom of the net each have a rope flowing through rings going around the net. The rope is pulled taut at the bottom once the net has surrounded the school, trapping them from swimming under the net as the top is pulled tight and up onto the boat, where the fish then spill out.

Of course, seine fishing like other forms of fishing results in a certain amount of bycatch (the hauling up of species that are not being targeted). It is also not always possible to predict how much fish you will haul up. You may catch beyond your quota.

This is an unavoidable aspect of going fishing, and it poses a dilemma. What do you do with the fish or other species you caught by accident and the fish you caught that took you over quota for your target species?

It comes down to two choices: You can either keep them or throw them back.

In cases where fishermen are expected to throw over-quota targeted fish back into the water, this is called a non-retention program, or non-retention fishery. Similar rules can also apply to by-catch. Sounds like a good idea on the surface, but Phil says these fish are all dead.

The non-retention of Chinook was first introduced in British Columbia in Rennell Sound, on the West Coast of Haida Gwaii. It was an unusual move at the time, with the idea of protecting the Chinook salmon while allowing the Sockeye fleet to fill their quota. During the three-day season, Sockeye fishermen were required to throw any Chinook they caught back into the sea. Any Chinook caught in Rennell Sound that year were to be treated as non-retention bycatch in other words.

In that three-day period, Phil says the Sockeye fleet threw 150,000 Chinook back into the ocean. For that entire year, the total allowable catch of Chinook for Northern British Columbia was 150,000 fish.

He says every Chinook thrown back would have died.

In other words, in this one small area of Haida Gwaii, the total allowed catch of Chinook for northern BC for that season, was caught and killed as waste over the course of three days so that they, “would not count towards the total.”

Phil and Henry are emphatic that this is not what conservation is supposed to resemble. “This is a totally and absolutely destructive catch and release program on a grand, commercial scale,” Phil says.

Nonetheless, he says there has been non-retention fishing ever since in seining, and also now in gill-net fishing. While the boats are now required to have recovery tanks and other paraphernalia to try to keep the fish alive, both Phil and Henry say those efforts are largely wasted, as the fish, once caught in the nets, might as well be dead. If they are not dead before they are released, they are so damaged that they are soon eaten by predators.

“There is no good outcome about throwing fish back that have been in a net,” he states.

If he is right, it is little wonder we are seeing declining salmon stocks along the BC coast, despite what on the surface resembles a system of management dedicated to keeping them healthy.

Coming soon: The Final Chapter - Part IV of West Coast Fisheries Management: For Whose Benefit?