Canada’s sweeping closures of Pacific coast salmon fisheries leave workers reeling

Commercial fishers are paying the price for 'collective failure' to minimize impacts to wild salmon populations, says watchdog

For Kevin Carpenter, a Heiltsuk gillnetter from Bella Bella, fishing has long been a way of life for him and his community.

“I started on boats when I was like five or six years old,” he told The Narwhal on a call from Prince Rupert.

In fact, he said he was preparing his boat for the fishing season a few weeks ago when he heard an announcement that would send him and the entire commercial fishing community reeling.

Canada’s fisheries minister, Bernadette Jordan, announced in late June her department would be closing nearly 60 per cent of the province’s commercial salmon fisheries to address the precipitous decline of the iconic species.

“When we got that news, we’re like, shit, what do we do? And then there’s a little glimmer of hope — they didn’t say Area 4 was going to be closed for sure. That’s where I’m sitting now.”

Carpenter, who is 54 years old, said waiting for the federal Fisheries and Oceans Department’s next move is a “huge gamble.” He said he has things he can do to earn money and fill his freezer if he can’t go out and fish but he’s worried about some of the older fishers who don’t have the same options.

“What are they supposed to do? They’re going to go home, they may drink themselves to death or they may lose their marriages, their houses, sell everything. Who knows?”

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The scale of the commercial closures, which include five species of salmon and multiple fishing methods, such as seine, gillnet and troll, is unprecedented; previous closures were either shorter or targeted a single species such as coho. 

However, according to the department’s fisheries management plans, only 13 of the 68 closures announced for the north/central and south coasts have been implemented thus far. It’s not clear yet whether the rest of them will actually be shut down.

“They said…the balance will be considered after consultations with affected parties, so we’ve got to read some caution into this — the minister and [Fisheries and Oceans Canada] have said lots of things in the past,” Greg Taylor, fisheries advisor with Watershed Watch, told The Narwhal in an interview. 

He noted the department committed to keeping mortality rates for endangered chinook salmon on the south coast below five per cent, a target that has not been met

“They keep on changing the goalposts so whether [the closures] actually happen or not, I think the jury’s still out on that.”

Fisheries and Oceans Canada said it will make decisions based on monitoring the actual salmon returns. “If it turns out that there are significantly more returning, we can open fisheries up accordingly [and] similarly for less fish returning, we will close fisheries in-season,” a spokesperson told The Narwhal in an email.

“However, the bar for considering reopening any fisheries currently identified for closure will be significantly higher than it has been,” Neil Davis, acting regional director for Pacific fisheries, wrote in an email to The Narwhal. “[Fisheries and Oceans Canada] is taking a more precautionary approach to the consideration of adequate abundance of target stocks and potential encounters of other, weaker stocks, for example. We’re also looking for long term increases in abundance rather than just single years that may show higher numbers.”

boat in water surrounded by mist and forests
Fisheries and Oceans Canada did not rule out the possibility of reopening fisheries in the future, but said it will make decisions based on whether actual salmon returns rise significantly. Photo: Chelsey Ellis

The minister also said the department would implement a compensation program for commercial operators who decide to get out of the industry for good. The department estimates that there are around 2,100 licence holders in B.C. and Yukon although not all licence holders are considered to be active in the industry.

“This voluntary salmon licence retirement program will provide harvesters with the option to retire their licences for fair market value and will facilitate the transition to a smaller commercial harvesting sector,” the statement said.

The department also told The Narwhal that it would determine details of the program after consulting First Nations and the commercial sector in the fall and winter.

Taylor, who previously managed a diverse fleet of commercial gillnetters and seiners, said he thinks the closures are necessary to give salmon a fighting chance of survival, but added it’s heartbreaking for the people whose lives and livelihoods are built on what he described as a calling. 

He said if Fisheries and Oceans Canada does follow through on its plans to close 60 per cent of the fisheries, most of the fishers will likely retire.

‘Reset button’ would shutter 79 Pacific salmon fisheries

According to research compiled by the Central Coast Indigenous Resource Alliance from publicly available data, salmon populations on the central coast have been in steady decline for several decades. 

Sockeye experienced a 90 per cent decline between 1950 and 2020; chum stocks declined by 94 per cent since 1954 and continue to decline at a rate of about 3.5 per cent every year; pink stocks dropped by an average of 89 per cent since the early 1960s; and spawning coho declined by 51 per cent since 2018 as compared to 2000 to 2015 averages.

While there are anomalies and outliers — populations that are comparatively healthy — these numbers reflect a trend across the province. The reasons for the decline are complex and the commercial fleet (which harvests only what the federal department says it can harvest) represents only one of many impacts that have led to the precarious position salmon are in. 

Climate change is warming the oceans and increased ocean acidification is impacting the species’ food supply, such as krill and other small fish species. Similarly, the impacts of climate change, including drought and flood events, are affecting the species’ freshwater spawning habitat, in some cases catastrophically. Fish farms have been linked to the transmission of diseases and pests like sea lice to wild populations and hatchery fish released into the Pacific from Alaska, Japan and other countries compete with wild salmon for food.

Inland, the impacts of oil and gas development and pipeline construction, mining and forestry cumulatively impact important spawning habitat. For example, the mining industry is increasingly under scrutiny for polluting salmon-bearing systems with toxins such as selenium and B.C.’s forest practices have been linked to impacts including increased sediment in spawning habitat and implicated as a major contributor to devastating mega-fires, which exacerbate the warming of streams and rivers.

As Taylor put it, in his annual salmon forecast, “commercial fishers will pay the price for our collective failure to address climate change, to adapt forest, land-use and water management practices in recognition of climate change and cumulative impacts, and to manage fisheries with precaution and according to established national and international policies.”  

Sarah Murdoch, a senior executive with the Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, told The Narwhal the decision to implement long-term closures to the commercial salmon fisheries is part of a broader, holistic strategy to protect wild salmon.

“Harvesting is not the key driver for the declines — we know that now,” she said in an interview. “But we need to do everything we can.” She said the scale of the closures reflect that need and she’s optimistic about collaborative conservation efforts between the federal, provincial and territorial governments, in partnership with First Nations. 

“There’s growing recognition…that you can’t protect salmon without protecting salmon habitat,” she said. “As we adapt for climate change, we’re going to have to be thinking more about landslides and floods and forest fires, and how that impacts not only communities but also impacts resources that we care about, like salmon.” 

Whether these closures signal a death knell for an industry that has supported generations of fishers — like the Atlantic cod fishery moratorium implemented in 1992 — or an emergency stop-gap as the harvesters who choose to stay in the business transition to more selective and sustainable fishing techniques depends largely on how Fisheries and Oceans Canada uses available funding and strategizes its approach to recovery efforts.

The BC Seafood Alliance, a group representing commercial harvesters and processors, is concerned about how these actions will impact its members and questioned whether the closures will actually accomplish the goal of rebuilding salmon stocks. 

“If you look back over the last 30 years, all we’ve actually done is cut back on commercial harvesting and it hasn’t made the slightest bit of difference,” Christina Burridge, executive director of the group, told The Narwhal in an interview. 

Taylor said it shouldn’t have come to this, noting the federal agency had developed several cutting-edge management policies that were never implemented on the West Coast. Those policies, he said, could have slowed population declines decades ago.

“The minister was left with a terrible choice: keep on going or do what she’s doing, hitting the reset button,” he said.

Licence retirement funding will come from federal investment to rebuild stocks 

Mike Reid, aquatics manager with the Heiltsuk Nation, said as difficult as this will be for the commercial fishers, many of whom are Indigenous, the decision was not unexpected.

“Some of the commercial fishers were actually saying it’s about time something was done,” he told The Narwhal in an interview. “They’ve been struggling for quite a while — this didn’t happen overnight.”

Burridge agreed and said the past few years have been devastating to the commercial fishing community, explaining that around 1,000 licence holders — nearly half of the fleet — were unable to fish last year. “That gives you the scale of the number of families affected by this,” she said.

Murdoch said she is acutely aware of the impacts to individuals and communities and part of her job is to figure out creative ways of navigating the commercial sector’s transition, including financial support.

“We need to do this for the salmon but the cost [to] people is high,” she said. “Recognizing the fact that over 40 per cent of commercial fisheries are now actually delivered by First Nations communities, we have to do a slightly nuanced version of that programming and look at it a little bit differently. How do we help soften the blow?”

She added the average age of commercial fishers is over 60 and part of the plan is to provide those licence holders — many of whom have not been actively fishing in recent years — with an exit strategy. “There is an opportunity, hopefully, to let some people retire with dignity and then work with those that want to remain to build something more adaptive and resilient, given climate change.” 

fish jumping out of water
The past few years have been devastating to the commercial fishing community, says Christina Burridge, executive director of the BC Seafood Alliance, who hopes the closures can provide an opportunity to give fishers an exit strategy. Photo: Chelsey Ellis

Fisheries and Oceans Canada confirmed to The Narwhal the funding for the licence retirement program will come from $647 million earmarked under the Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative. While this initiative was originally designed to include some money for the government to buy back licences and reduce the number of fishers in the sector, both Watershed Watch and the BC Seafood Alliance said they believe the government will spend too much on the licence buybacks and not enough on vital restoration projects.

“It needs to be separate, because if [the closures are] going to take out the livelihood of all these people, then the least we can do in the long-term is put the money towards rebuilding the stocks,” Burridge said. “There is so much work that needs to be done.” 

She said members of the BC Seafood Alliance and representatives of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union estimated the cost of the program to be around $275 million. Fisheries and Oceans Canada said the compensation for licences will be based on the market value of licences in recent years but Burridge said years of policy decisions have driven down the value. 

“I’m not convinced that just the last couple of years is a fair reflection of a lifetime’s worth of work,” she said.

Taylor, from Watershed Watch, said he isn’t convinced either and said he’s also worried that depleting the funding to support the licence retirement program will have negative consequences for vital conservation efforts.  

“This is an industry that has been ravaged by climate change,” he said. “It’s not their fault and they should get compensation but it should not come out of the $647 million because that’s just robbing our chance to recover wild salmon.”

people standing on a dock near boats
According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the funding for the licence retirement program will come from $647 million earmarked under the Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative. Experts are concerned this will take money away from efforts to rebuild salmon stocks. Photo: Chelsey Ellis

Murdoch said the federal department was confident the remaining funds will be sufficient to meet the mandates of the program, which include conservation and stewardship, enhanced hatchery production and integrated management and collaboration with stakeholders

Carpenter, the gillnetter from Bella Bella, said the federal department needs to throw everything it has into rebuilding stocks, particularly if it plans to close the commercial fisheries. On the other hand, he said if the goal is conservation, it’s going to take at least five years as the salmon complete a life cycle. 

“To see any kind of results within that cycle, we’ve got to do our best to try and get all the other things lined up, like getting fish farms out of the water, habitat enhancement and all that,” he said, adding that fish hatcheries will need to play a role in supporting stocks, which could generate some employment opportunities.

“You can put some disgruntled fishermen to work — they will have seine boats here and there, and they can catch fish and can also transport fish,” he said. “There’s a lot of learning curves that we have to overcome. Mistakes will be made.”

Burridge noted the impacts of closing over half of the commercial fisheries go far beyond the fishers. In a letter to the minister shared with The Narwhal, she asked, “What about processors who will have to lay off much of their workforce, mainly new Canadians, Indigenous and women, and the damage to vital infrastructure in coastal communities?” 

She said the on-shore commercial sector is already in rough shape due to decades of declining numbers. For example, there is only one cannery left in the province and in its heyday, B.C. had over 200 canneries along the coast.

“The infrastructure is pretty fragile — you’ve got one offload point in Port Hardy and I think we’re down to one in Rupert these days,” she said. “If they don’t have the volume, eventually they’ll shut down.”

‘It’s the same fish’: recreational fisheries remain open as commercial fisheries close

On the central coast, as the province reopens for travel and tourism, locals are concerned that the commercial closures will do little to protect at-risk populations as recreational fishers flood the region. 

“It’s unfortunate that the minister has taken the route that they have allowed the [recreational coho] fisheries to remain open when, in our opinion, that’s a conservation concern,” Reid said. “It’s a different fishery, but it’s the same fish.” 

Fisheries and Oceans Canada told The Narwhal there will be closures to recreational fisheries this year but noted recreational fishing for chinook and coho are prioritized.

“Where commercial fishery closures are in place to conserve specific sockeye, pink and chum salmon stocks, recreational retention fisheries will also be restricted, consistent with salmon allocation priorities,” the federal agency said in a statement provided to The Narwhal. “Recreational chinook and coho fisheries…may not be restricted in the same manner as commercial fisheries for these species.”

Reid said in absence of closures, Heiltsuk Guardians will take to the water in the hopes of educating sport fishers visiting the region. He told The Narwhal this strategy was successful in previous years and is optimistic that most people are open to listening and learning. 

“I don’t know anyone who would stand by and watch somebody go and take the last fish,” he said. “If local sport fishers understood [our concerns] probably 99.9 per cent of them would say, ‘We agree we shouldn’t be killing this last fish.’ ”

Burridge said she’s concerned the decisions are being made for political reasons, not based on science, noting the closure of the commercial coho fishery off the west coast of Haida Gwaii, where populations are healthier, effectively signs a death warrant for many trollers, who have worked closely with Fisheries and Oceans Canada on monitoring, stock assessment and DNA analysis to ensure they are not harvesting at-risk populations. Trolling is a type of fishing that baits fish on lines pulled behind a boat.

“I don’t know anyone who would stand by and watch somebody go and take the last fish…If local sport fishers understood [our concerns] probably 99.9 per cent of them would say, ‘We agree we shouldn’t be killing this last fish.’ ” Mike Reid
Aquatics manager with the Heiltsuk Nation

“Losing that coho fishery is really serious for them,” she said. “It’s particularly galling when the recreational fishery is still open. If [Fisheries and Oceans Canada] is targeting stocks of concern and the recreational fishery can take full bag limit, it kind of makes you wonder whether this is more about politics than science.”

Carpenter said the commercial industry is often blamed for declining stocks while the impacts of the recreational fishery are overlooked. 

“The sport fishing sector has…a daily limit, but they’re fishing seven days a week, 24/7,” he said. “And here we are tied to the docks. They say we’re a dirty industry.”

The Narwhal reached out to the Sport Fishing Institute of BC but did not receive a reply prior to publication.

Future uncertain for both fish and fishers

Murdoch said she is hopeful that the new strategy will not only support salmon populations but will also ensure there is a future commercial sector.

“We’re just trying to bring more vision to it and a place for that longer-term conversation rather than just year-to-year fisheries closure decisions,” she said, adding the department doesn’t know how many active licence holders will actually fish a particular species until an opening occurs. 

Carpenter said this system, and other aspects of how the federal department currently manages the fisheries, contributed to the state of salmon today.

“It’s failed the species, it’s failed the fishermen, the communities, everything,” he said.

boat in water
Kevin Carpenter, a Heiltsuk gillnetter from Bella Bella, believes Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s approach to managing fisheries has led to the poor state of salmon today and that it’s about time something was done to protect the fish. Photo: Chelsey Ellis

Murdoch said after the licence retirement program is complete, next steps include developing a strategy for supporting the commercial harvesters that choose to remain. 

“Those fishers seem to want to work out a business model and approach that’s viable and sustainable over the next decade — they want to build a future into it. How do we work with them? That might look a little different than how we fished in the past.”

Carpenter said he doesn’t know what he’s going to do, a feeling shared by many in the community, but he added the need to protect salmon stocks is urgent.

“It’s about time — we have to do something,” he said. “We’re in a weird place. I’ve heard talk amongst a lot of guys, a lot of comments: if we don’t act now then it’s done. It’ll literally disappear. And we’re gonna fight over crumbs.”

“There’s no two ways about it, something drastic has got to be done,” he continued. “In our area we haven’t seen the fish come back so we do have to make…sacrifices. And I guess it’s time to do that.”

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