A panel of veteran commercial fishermen, some from families that trace their fishing heritage back to 1918, has urged a federal judicial inquiry to change the way salmon catches are allocated on the West Coast.
"The system is broken," Ryan McEachern, a fourth-generation fisherman, told the Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River.
Mr. McEachern, treasurer of the Area D Salmon Gillnetters Association, said the system for allocating the salmon catch was designed when fishermen could go anywhere they wanted off British Columbia's coast.
But starting in the early 1990s, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans switched from a coast-wide to an area licensing system, restricting boats to designated areas, regardless of how strong the runs are in that area. The result, Mr. McEachern said, is that a fair distribution of the catch across the entire fleet is almost impossible because, from season to season, some boats are restricted to areas with few fish, while others are in areas where fish are plentiful.
"You cannot make what you've got work," agreed Peter Sakich, president of the Gulf Trollers Association, whose family has been fishing for salmon in B.C. for more than 90 years.
Dennis Brown, a former organizer for the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union, said another problem is that the allocation process has become "politicized."
He said the salmon catch is being allocated more to achieve policy goals, handed down from Ottawa, than by a desire to properly manage the resource.
Mr. Brown argued that DFO is allocating fish away from commercial fishermen, in order to redistribute the catch to First Nations, so as to promote its aboriginal fishing strategy.
The aboriginal fishing strategy has encouraged the development of a controversial, commercial, native-only fishery on the Fraser.
Mr. Brown said DFO is also allocating fish away from the commercial fleet because of a poorly thought out weak stock policy, which has been blamed in recent years for closing the sockeye fishery on the Fraser, when big runs of fish were coming in.
In order to protect weak stocks, which often intermingle with much larger runs of salmon, DFO shuts the fishery down when the weak runs enter the river.
But Mr. Brown said DFO has been overzealous in pursuing that goal, and over the past several years millions of sockeye that could have been harvested have been allowed to swim upstream, in order to protect a few weak runs.
"There is no fair allocation now ... because of a whole number of political policies that have been introduced since the 90s," he said.
"In recent years, allocation of the resource ... has become almost dysfunctional," Mr. Brown said. "There are all kinds of nice sounding formulas [for allocating the catch] . .but the end result . . . is an absolute catastrophe."
In allocating the catch, DFO first estimates the number of salmon returning to key rivers, such as the Fraser, then calculates how many need to be allowed upstream to spawn, in order to hit conservation targets. The remaining number of fish constitutes the total allowable catch, which is then divided among First Nations, commercial fishermen and sports anglers. Every year each group asks for a larger share, while conservationists argue that more fish should be allowed upstream to spawn.
The commission, which is under the direction of B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen, was appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in late 2009 after the sockeye run in the Fraser River collapsed.
Hearings are currently under way in Vancouver. A final report is due by June 30, 2012.