Operators of Vancouver Island fishing charters are on tenterhooks as they await a decision by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans regarding the 2019 conservation measures for chinook salmon.
Hanging on the outcome of that decision are some 900 jobs in the charter industry and $1.1 billion in economic activity, according to Owen Bird of the Sport Fishing Institute of B.C.
“There are about 25 fishing charter operators in (our) area and, like me, they do a lot to drive the local economy,” said Ryan Chamberlain, the owner of Vancouver Island Lodge in Sooke.
“I bring in people from all over the world and they benefit businesses like the Stickleback (pub), 17 Mile House, and all kinds of business. Just for myself, for example, I buy $40,000 worth of gas for my business every year. Shut us down and all of that goes away.”
A Feb. 5 letter sent out to sport fishing operators by DFO expressed concerns over the declining stocks of chinook salmon and offered up two scenarios to address the situation.
Scenario A would provide a high degree of protection for the chinook to permit as many fish as possible to pass through fisheries to spawning areas.
The approach would aim to limit the total Canadian fish mortalities to less than five per cent. For sport fishing charters it would mean a chinook non-retention (meaning that no chinook could be kept) along migration corridors in southern B.C.
“Recreational fisheries in the Fraser River would remain closed to fishing for salmon into August, followed by no fishing for chinook if there are openings for other species,” read the letter.
Scenario B, the second option, would aim to reduce fishery mortalities to 10 per cent or less.
Recreational chinook charters would have reduced daily limits and hatchery-marked retention depending on time and location.
Recreational fisheries in the Fraser River would remain closed to fishing for salmon through July until Aug. 23.
“It’s actually a good thing that they haven’t just come out with one of those scenarios at this point,” Chamberlain said. “It might mean that they are rethinking what was a very bad approach.”
Following the release of the letter, a series of consultations and lobbying efforts by recreational sport fish operators took place to point out some of the problems with that approach.
“There is a lot of uncertainty right now, although the lack of a timely announcement isn’t all that unusual,” Bird said.
“Option A would pretty much stop the activity of the sport fishing industry, while option B is allowing for an opportunity for the industry to continue.”
The difference to the salmon between the two options, said Bird, is negligible.
“The bottom line is that politics and optics are at play. Conservation of the chinook has a complex range of problems, but in this case, the difference to the industry is profound while the conservation factor is negligible,” he said.
“Sport fishing charters take the brunt of the regulations but, frankly, it has little impact on conservation. The juice is simply not worth the squeeze.”
Rollie Rose, the owner of Sooke Salmon Charters Ltd., has been operating his business since 1986.
“In my lifetime, there hasn’t been one fishing minister who understood the importance of a timely announcement (on fishing quotas),” Rose said.
“We have people who book with us coming from Texas, Australia … all over, and we can’t tell them what the openings (when they can fish and how many fish they can keep) are going to be. They’ll just go elsewhere.”
On conservation, Rose is equally critical.
“I’m looking forward to the day that the government is doing something constructive (to preserve salmon stocks),” Rose said.
“Where there has been success, it’s come from little groups like the Juan de Fuca Salmon Restoration Society in Sooke doing it themselves. I’m a part of that group and we work on stream restoration, hatcheries, all the things that make a difference.”
Rose said that his season has shrunk considerably and that his business and the economic benefit it provides is at risk due to a confused approach by the government.
Chamberlain, too, has seen some of his regular clients refrain from booking, and he has heard stories from other charter operators about some “horrible cancellations”.
“We want to be careful about what we say because we don’t want to leave the impression that the fishery is closed. That hasn’t happened, but I really do wish people involved in the environmental movement driving the narrative on the issue would actually come and talk to us,” Chamberlain said.
“I’ve reached out and they just don’t respond.”
Black Press reached out to the David Suzuki Foundation and the Raincoast Foundation for comment, but received no reply.