Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Fishing season finger pointing

Fishing season finger pointing

With the days running short in the 2006 fishing season, things continue to be rather heated when it comes to the fishing industry and the government’s interpretations of what is best for it.
From Vancouver, the Bill Good show today tackled the contentious issue of a ”Race Based Fishery”, with a number of guests, ranging from Phil Eidsvik of the Fishermen’s Survival Coalition to leaders of the Sto:lo nation and Native Brotherhood, debating the current status of fishing regulations in the province this season.

With the Prime Minister recently wading into the issue and talk of a judicial inquiry possibly being called into the current system in place, it will remain as a front burner issue long after the last fish has worked its way up the Fraser River. It was at times a heated discussion, and you can listen in for yourself through the CKNW Audio Vault choosing Wednesday from 9-10 am. One thing is certain, it’s an issue that is easily inflamed and doesn’t seem to have a simple answer to it.

In Prince Rupert, as another summer fishing season dwindles down and with local fish plants not pumping out the volume of years gone by and the fishing fleet struggling for another year, the inevitable and almost annual amount of finger pointing here has begun anew.

Once again, a number of government agencies find themselves at the pointy end of those fingers as DFO and Provincial environment officials find that they are the subject of much scrutiny as August moves into September.

One of the more stunning issues is the current debate over the large run of sockeye salmon and the fact that the fishing fleet has been shut down after reaching its steelhead bycatch limit. A halted fishery that union Representative Joy Thorkelson says will result in lost opportunities for fishermen and shoreworkers and a massive glut of dead salmon outside of spawning areas.

The issue of fishing became one of the key discussions of the northwest this week, it has caught the attention of the local MLA Gary Coons and of the Mayor and Council with the Mayor wondering aloud about who is really in control of the fishery these days..

The Daily News provided details of those findings and concerns in their Wednesday edition.

By James Vassallo
The Daily News
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
Pages One and Three

Federal and Provincial government indecision is costing local fishermen hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The fishing fleet, which has struggled to make ends meet for the last decade, has been shut down despite record runs because neither Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) or the Ministry of Environment will decide if additional steelhead bycatch needed to continue fishing for sockeye is acceptable. Fishermen could have earned an additional $150,000 in a two-day fishery last weekend if they were allowed to have one per cent more steelhead bycatch.

“I have yet to encounter anyone who will say either ‘yes’ or ‘no’, I have only heard from people who are pointing at other people saying it’s up to them,” said Mayor Herb Pond. “In short, you have the Department of Fisheries saying ‘yes, it’s their jurisdiction but they won’t open the fishery without the Ministry of Environment agreeing” … and you have the Ministry of Environment saying it’s really DFO’s call, it’s really got nothing to do with us.”

“One wonders whether or not they’re allowing time to make the decision so they don’t have to.”

The commercial fleet, consisting of 135 gillnetters and eight seiners, has caught around 33 per cent of what all sides are calling an “extraordinary” sockeye run – 1.8 million were estimated at the start of the season and well over three million have returned so far.

Despite being entitled to 41 per cent of the run, they have caught their maximum allotment of 24 per cent of the steelhead, which also has strong numbers, in the process and fishing has been halted. Last year, the fleet only caught one per cent of the steelhead due to a nearly non-existent Skeena fishery.

“They know they can’t harm the steelhead stocks, and they know we could go fish (sockeye) and make money doing it, and they know our fishing families have suffered for years and they’ve got like mana from heaven all of a sudden (but) there’s nobody in the whole system to say let’s do it? I’m profoundly disappointed in the government structure,” said Pond. “I am very seriously considering getting on an airplane and camping out on someone’s front door to have them stare me in the eyes and say ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”

If history proves accurate, the concerns over the steelhead conservation – the whole reason for the 24 per cent bycatch limit – may have the ironic consequence of wiping out future sockeye runs.

“We put huge numbers of fish on the spawning grounds in the mid-90’s and … there is only so much room on the spawning grounds,” said Joy Thorkelson, United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union (UFAWU-CAW) northern representative.

“What happens is sockeye dig a nest, called a red, and lay their eggs but if you let in too many fish, the other sockeye dig up the reds and nothing survives in the winter time.

“That happens with every species if there is an over-escapement.”

To prevent this from happening in the past officials have closed the gates to the spawning channels leading to countless fish mortalities.

“I have pictures of a million to a million and a half fish lined up by the gates leading back to Babine Lake and they just sit there and rot and die,” said Thorkelson.

These fish also carry two gill diseases which usually don’t harm the fish unless they’re stressed out. However, this crowded environment triggers that stress response.

“The gill diseases take over and even fish that get on the spawning grounds are stressed,” she said. “Then what happens is the fish on the spawning grounds don’t have enough oomph to dig their nests and so they deposit all their eggs into one red instead of three reds, they don’t bury their eggs deep enough (and) then the babies from those eggs don’t survive.

The danger of over escapement is that four years later you have no fish coming back and in fact in 1998 and 1999, which were the years four years after the escapement we were totally shut down.”

North Coast MLA Gary Coons is calling on Environment Minister Barry Penner to step in quickly and tell DFO the province supports extra fishing for the local fleet.

“The agreement (on steelhead bycatch) is between DFO and the Ministry,” said Coons. “If the Ministry said they don’t have a problem with the situation and due to the amount of money it will mean in the pockets of fishermen and shoreworkers in our community, I would think that a bit of pressure would allow a bit of leeway.

“The Minister of the Environment can make this decision and has failed to, he’s failed to support rural communities.”

The extra fishing days would also provide more work for shoreworkers, many of whom are struggling to gain enough hours for employment insurance over the winter.

“It’s a no-brainer and it’s going to fall back right on the Minister,” said Coons. “Perhaps it means more workers who can’t meet their federal EI hours falling back on provincial social assistance.”

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