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(Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail/Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)
(Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail/Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)

GWYN MORGAN

One fish, two fish: Troubles in the B.C. fishery Add to ...

These are trying times for B.C.’s rural coastal communities. The forest products sector is in decline as timber harvests fall and aging pulp mills close. And the boom years of the other traditional economic mainstay, commercial fish harvesting and processing, are a distant memory.

In abandoned towns, the dilapidated remains of fish canneries yield to forest undergrowth. A combination of fewer fish and longer-range refrigerated boats means fishermen can now take their catch directly to market in cities to the south. Once an economic driver, the commercial fishery is of little net economic value to the province.

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Fortunately, the recreational fishery is a different story. Each year, some 300,000 anglers ply B.C.’s stunningly beautiful coastal waters. Many of these sport fishermen rent cars, float planes, boats and fishing equipment and employ guides, generating hundreds of millions of dollars for the economy.

In place of those decaying fishing towns, high-quality, well-staffed lodges have sprung up, along with hundreds of other businesses providing support services. It’s a good-news story for the province, employing thousands of workers.

Yet judging by Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s perverse fish-quota allocation policies, one would think it’s the commercial fishery that provides the higher economic value. This profoundly misguided federal attitude is endangering the single most important job creator left to B.C.’s struggling coastal communities.

The North Pacific sport fishery is anchored by two key species, salmon and halibut. A joint Canada-U.S. commission sets total catch limits as well as the catch allocations between the two countries. Annual quotas are adjusted based on fish population and size data, but the general trend has been downward.

The impact of these quota reductions on the halibut sport fishery is an unfortunate example of short-sighted policies. For many years, only 12 per cent was allocated to recreational anglers. In an effort to make this small allocation last through the season, the daily catch limit for sports fishermen was reduced to one fish, from two. Continuing quota reductions brought back the prospect of mid-season shutdowns for the recreational fishery, with layoffs for supporting businesses.

Earlier this year, federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield announced a slight shift in the halibut quota split, giving 15 per cent to recreational anglers and 85 per cent to the commercial fishery. But because this tiny increase for sports anglers coincided with a decrease in the bilateral commission’s total allowable catch for 2012, B.C.’s halibut recreational fishery faces a possible mid-summer shutdown.

This unfortunate state of affairs also creates a windfall for fishing lodges in Washington and Alaska, where higher catch limits reflect the sport fishery’s economic importance.

Even though the increase in the recreational allotment for halibut was small, it didn’t deter the commercial fishery lobby from charging Ottawa with “caving in” to the sport sector. Yet the policy record clearly shows a long-standing bias in favour of the commercial fishery.

For example, the number of B.C. salmon caught by single line-rod angling is minuscule compared with the massive takes by commercial fishermen using multiple hook trawlers, gillnetters and purse seiners. Commercial fishing methods also cause habitat and species destruction from dragging nets, and the practice of dumping overboard the dead “by-catch” fish.

And the economic benefits of the sport fishery are much superior. Including air and ground transportation, food services, boat rentals, fishing guides, lodge accommodation and licence fees, the economic value added for a single salmon caught can total more than $1,000. And that’s before the additional economic benefits from tourist anglers who extend their holidays sightseeing and shopping.

The dysfunctional Fisheries and Oceans policies are exemplified by the cancellation of this year’s Juan de Fuca International Salmon Championship Derby. This important social and cultural event brought in a lot of tourist dollars even as it raised hundreds of thousands for salmon habitat and stock enhancement – enhancements that benefit the commercial fishery.

It is important to maximize the economic benefits of Canada’s natural resources, yet the Pacific fishery policies are having precisely the opposite result. Continuation of this dysfunctional approach will mean the loss of thousands of jobs and lead to abandonment of more B.C. coastal communities.

Many people have long believed that bureaucrats in Ottawa are too far away to understand what they’re doing when they set policies for the West. Perhaps those people are right.

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