Friday, August 21, 2009

Gillnetters grow anxious over lack of opportunities

The state of the Pacific Salmon fishery seems to be holding the gillnet fleet in particular hostage to the administrative decisions of the DFO.

With the fishing days dwindling down and the opportunities to head out to the fishing grounds growing few, the fleets participants were expressing their growing frustration with DFO and Minister Shea and the increasing fears that another lost season is on the near horizon.

By George T. Baker
The Daily News
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Pages one and five

They say it's become a broken record - and commercial fishermen don't want to listen to it anymore.

On Friday morning, when the Department of Fisheries and Oceans reported that it had found only 13,000 salmon at its Tyee testing grounds at the mouth of the Skeena River on Thursday, it meant there would be no opening last weekend.

That's because the department policy dictates there must be at least 50,000 fish counted.

When DFO representatives said they would not meet with fishermen that day to discuss what would happen next, those who awaited word became fed up.

The contingent of fishermen that have not given up on the season immediately organized a two-stop march to the local MIA office and then the DFO.

They want both Ottawa and Victoria to know that they fear they are being ignored. And they say the longer this goes on, the harder this winter will be.

"Every year it's getting worse. Every year there is another excuse why we can't fish. We didn't fish four years ago and we aren't going to fish this year," said fisherman Rick Frey.

Frey along with at least 50 others made their way around the streets of Prince Rupert holding cardboard signs that read in black ink "Let Us Fish Now, please".

The understated signs were a veil for seething anger fishermen all over B.C. Two iconic salmon rivers, the Fraser and the Skeena, are failing to produce the kinds of Sockeye numbers that the DFO said it would need to allow openings.

While some attention has been paid to the dark cloud that hangs over the Fraser, it's the Skeena that gets hit first because the fish swim southward. It is considered a good bellwether to see how the rest of the provincial coast will fare each year.

It's the sockeyes that are the test. If there are sockeyes, there is fishing, say the DFO. The daily escapement counts began on June 2, when the DFO counted 176 salmon. Since then, the numbers kept going up and up, but the DFO wouldn't open until it received a consistent 50,000 count. That has only happened once this year, on July 19, when the number reached 55,000. And so commercial fishermen are forced to wait on the sidelines.

The low numbers and the constant waiting game over the last two weeks have been emotionally draining, say gillnetters. They are worried that if they are unable to get at the fish they believe is out there, some will face excruciating winters. That's because being unable to fish is a two-punch knockout: If they can't fish they can't earn income to survive. And if they can't fish, they can't earn enough hours to claim employment insurance.

Which has them demanding that if they won't be allowed to fish this year, a lot of them just want to be compensated for their licenses or be allowed easy access to EI. And they believe just as much there are salmon in the ocean, there is money available to help them out.

Frey points to the investment the federal government recently made to the aquaculture industry in B.C. Shea announced on July 8 that six aquaculture companies would receive $940,000 in funding for improving aquaculture practices. That investment, said Frey, could easily be used to help out 150 gillnet license holders at $6,200 each.

Fishermen such as Frey also present the physical aspect of today's commercial fleet: graying, bearded and passed their prime. They say there are no young deckhands that want to fish because there 's no opportunity. So, eventually when some of these men have retired, quit or passed away they feel no one will be there to take their licenses.

"I'm a young man in this industry," said Jarred Faithful, 37-year old Tsimshian fishermen from Port Simpson. "But even I can remember the days when we would fish sockeye for the companies and keep the other salmons for ourselves. That's how we made a living."

Others have much more direct feelings on the subject.

"It is despair waiting," said Duc Huynh. "We are getting no opportunities."

Huynh spoke for a contingent of Vietnamese gillnet fishermen who make up a sizeable portion of the total licensed fleet. His wife and three children depend on whatever he catches, but if he can't catch a single salmon, he won't be able to get back home to Vancouver, let alone provide for his family, he said. It can cost as much as $1,000 in fuel to travel from the south to the north coast.

Huynh, who planned the visit to the DFO office Friday, said it was time that DFO minister, Gail Shea, responded to calls to meet with them.

In an effort to answer some questions, DFO Prince Rupert senior staffer, David Einerson, attempted to discuss the reasons for keeping the fishery closed. The crowd was appeared hostile and their stance was augmented, by several honking car horns of support by passing locals.

But Einerson held to the fact that DFO policy would not allow that until numbers increased.

"We are not going to fish into escapement. We will be watching the numbers day-to-day.'

"David, this is every year,' shouted Frey. "But it's getting worse."

"We are not going to fish if we don't get our spawning totals," responded Einerson.

Fred Wilson, who has been one of the most vocal members of discontent amongst the gillnetters, had little patience for what he believed to be excuses from local and Ottawa DFO staff.

So far, Shea has provided no response. If she doesn't, it would be the second year in a row that a DFO minister publicly ignored pleas to meet with North Coast representatives.

Last year, despite having sent a letter to then Fisheries and Oceans Minister Loyola Hearn, the United Fishermen and Allied Workers' Union did not receive a response from Hearn.

They feel they are in a similar predicament once more.

"We have been trying for the past two weeks to set up a meeting with Shea in Ottawa for sometime in October," said United Fishermen and Allied Workers North Coast representative, Joy Thorkelsen. "North Coast Mayors want to speak with her. We need to speak with her."

All the fishermen could do is wait this weekend. On Saturday, they were told the numbers had slightly bumped to 17,000 - still nowhere near the numbers needed. By today, they should know whether or not there is a fishing season at all.

They would like to think that at least on Friday they let it be known once and for all what this hurting industry is doing to them.

"They just don't know," said Hunyh. "They should know what's in our hearts."

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