Fisheries Policy

FISHERIES POLICY refers to government policies affecting the management of the fisheries resource: the timing of the harvest, the size of the catches and the benefits deriving from them (see FISHING, COMMERCIAL). Although the province has enjoyed substantial fisheries on other species, particularly HERRING and HALIBUT, the story of fisheries management in BC is basically the story of the SALMON fishery. Fish purchased from aboriginal harvesters supported a profitable salted salmon operation at FORT LANGLEY, the HBC post on the lower FRASER R, from the early 1830s until the Fraser R GOLD RUSH in 1858, but it was not until the rise of the modern SALMON CANNING industry, with its reliance on high-volume, low-cost supplies of fish harvested by growing numbers of non-aboriginal gillnet fishers, that public authorities saw a need to intervene in fisheries management.

Government management of fisheries resources in BC began in 1874 with a letter to Ottawa from the pioneering BLACK canner John Sullivan DEAS, who was seeking the exclusive right to gillnet in a lucrative stretch of the Fraser R. Although the salmon canning industry was then less than 10 years old—the first canning occurred in 1864 and Alexander EWEN did not establish a sustained cannery business until 1871—the enormous profits available from the fishery had already produced intense competition for fish. Following Deas's letter, Ottawa appointed the former FUR TRADER A.C. ANDERSON as the province's fisheries inspector that same year. The federal Fisheries Act was not extended to cover BC until 1875, however, and no regulations were implemented for the BC commercial fishery until 1878. These regulations—offal was not to be dumped in the river, and a 36-hour weekend closure was imposed on cannery gillnetters—were routinely ignored, and their impact would have been negligible even if they had been enforced.

While the new regime did little to affect the canning industry, it did begin the century-long process of dismantling the legal basis for the aboriginal fisheries. In 1877 the Fisheries Act was amended to allow Natives only the "privilege" of fishing for food purposes, an implicit restriction on the FIRST NATIONS' commercial right to fish. Anderson initially advocated firm legal protection for aboriginal FISHING rights, but ultimately was forced to create this regulatory distinction between subsistence fishing and commercial harvest to satisfy canners' demands to suppress any commercial harvest they did not control. In doing so, the government planted the seeds of a conflict that has haunted the fishery down to the modern era.

No serious attempt to regulate commercial fishing was undertaken until 1888, when Fraser R canners lobbied Ottawa to control both the number of canneries and the number of boats by allotting a certain number of gillnet licences to each cannery. Although advanced as a measure to reduce "overfishing," this initiative was intended to reduce costs, eliminate competition from new entrants to the canning industry and reduce the bargaining power of fishers. Despite an increase in the number of boats on the Fraser from 65 in 1874 to more than 900 just 15 years later, the number of fish caught had fluctuated and even declined during some cycles. Efforts by the federal government to implement the canners' regime in 1889 met stiff resistance from an emerging class of "free fishermen." These fishers lived along the river and built their own gillnetters. They used their political clout to force a 1-year moratorium on implementation of licence limitation and campaigned for much tougher conservation measures. But the government ultimately created 2 classes of licences, one open on an unlimited basis to white, "free" fishers and another restricted class tied to canneries and issued, in practice, to fishers of JAPANESE descent. The Japanese Canadians, fishing on contract and (like aboriginals) denied the right to vote, were locked for the next half-century in this regulatory ghetto.

The main features of the modern salmon industry fell into place with Henry O. BELL-IRVING's organization in 1893 of the ANGLO-BC PACKING CO, a sprawling cannery combine that controlled 70% of the Fraser pack. This new company, superseded by the forerunner of the modern-day BC PACKERS in 1903, was confronted in 1900 and 1901 by bitter strikes by fishers; these actions established a pattern of labour–management conflict that persisted for almost 90 years, with serious consequences for fisheries management (see FRASER RIVER FISHERMEN'S STRIKES). During this period, canners worked tirelessly to intensify their fishing effort, lobbying successfully to expand the Japanese contract fleet and adding the destructive power of fish traps, particularly on the American side, to the pressure on the stocks. To compensate for their enormous catches, they demanded public investment in FISH HATCHERIES as an alternative to conservation measures. In 1901, angry that federal authorities had created only 4 hatcheries to sustain the Fraser R runs and disturbed at Ottawa's failure to prevent devastating MINING on critical salmon rivers like the Horsefly, the provincial government appointed John Pease BABCOCK, an American, as the province's first fisheries commissioner. Subsequent attempts to create a provincial licensing authority led to repeated negotiations and court challenges in Ottawa. The federal authority was confirmed in a reference to the Privy Council in the United Kingdom in 1914, but BC did create its own fisheries legislation and, through Babcock, played an important role in mobilizing public opinion in favour of improved conservation (see FISHERIES JURISDICTION). It was Babcock who in 1913 sounded the alarm about the HELLS GATE BLOCKADE, when slides of rock and debris in the Fraser Canyon choked salmon runs and devastated the resource. The destruction of so many salmon prompted a complete closure of aboriginal fisheries in the canyon, and stopped further investment in hatcheries. It also caused canners to intensify their fisheries on every inlet and creek of the coast, targeting all 5 salmon species. This renewed rush for access to salmon stocks triggered its own crisis of overexpansion in 1928, when a second major round of corporate consolidation was accompanied by government action to eliminate the beach or drag seine operations of coastal First Nations. Although depicted as a conservation measure, the elimination of the drag seines effectively transferred fish—and the jobs that went with it—to the growing fleet of purse seiners deployed by canners. The 1928 crisis did, however, precipitate government investment in improved monitoring of catches and spawning escapements, which laid the basis for fisheries management in the modern era.

It was not until 1937, with the negotiation of a sockeye treaty with the US which provided for the elimination of American traps targetting Fraser runs, that actual management of the salmon runs to achieve conservation objectives became a possibility (see INTERNATIONAL PACIFIC SALMON FISHERIES CONVENTION). By agreeing to share the Fraser runs with the Americans, Canada secured a measure of control over the catch. Comprehensive research into the life cycle of salmon was undertaken for the first time and plans were laid to eliminate the blockade at Hells Gate. It took a further 10 years to complete construction of the first fishways at Hells Gate, but the subsequent management of Fraser salmon fisheries by the International Pacific Salmon Fisheries Commission led to a major recovery of Fraser runs in the 1950s and 1960s. Returning runs were protected right through coastal waters and assured safe passage through the Fraser Canyon. The result was a dramatic increase in sockeye and pink returns, particularly after the treaty was extended to Fraser pink salmon in the 1950s. In the case of the Horsefly sockeye run, a few thousand spawners in the 1940s were built up to several million by the 1980s.

WWII brought profound changes to the fishery. Fishers saw their bargaining power strengthened because of their vital role in coastal protection and food production. New technology had a growing impact on the harvest. Race-based licensing had been eliminated at the end of the war and the creation of the UNITED FISHERMEN AND ALLIED WORKERS' UNION (UFAWU) in 1945 allowed fishers a strong voice in management and price negotiations. The union's leadership overcame strong resistance from some members to ensure that Japanese Canadian fishers returned to the industry as equals, free of the discriminatory licensing and housing of the pre-war era. Direct union action in 1946 even forced a change in the allocation of catches between seine and gillnet fleets. A series of successful strikes drove up the price paid to fishers and the union began a campaign for a licence limitation scheme to protect fishers' incomes. Increased public investment in fisheries led to the development of a new generation of fisheries managers who combined unprecedented research resources with a sense of independence from corporate priorities. The International Pacific Salmon Commission's research supported a growing conservation ethic among British Columbians, epitomized by successful opposition to the proposed Moran hydroelectric dam across the Fraser R (see also ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT). Fisheries managers were confident that they could not only protect the salmon runs, but restore them to unprecedented strength. Their objective was maximum sustained yield, the regular and predictable harvest of exactly that amount of fish which would generate maximum harvests without impairing survival of the stock.

By the end of the 1960s, however, BC fisheries managers found themselves confronting new challenges on several fronts. Some economists complained that protection of fish habitat to sustain salmon runs was holding back more valuable investment in HYDROELECTRICITY, LOGGING and other industries. The fishing industry, they argued, suffered from the "tragedy of the commons"—the dissipation of economic rent from a resource that occurs when access to the resource is unlimited. The value of the fishery appeared to be equal to the cost of harvest and management. The large increase in the number of fishers and their stagnant earnings appeared to support this analysis. The UFAWU had long advocated licence limitation, to protect both the fish and the fishers. The union believed the government should protect the public interest in the resource by limiting the number of fishers to as many as could make a decent living from the available harvest, admitting new entrants as veterans retired or moved to other jobs. But resource economists led an assault against a fisheries management that had conservation as its only goal. Unless it could show a profit greater than other economic activity, they argued, fisheries management system was a waste of time. The lines of a renewed conflict were drawn. In 1969 the federal government introduced the Davis Plan, a licence limitation and reduction program named for Jack DAVIS, the Liberal fisheries minister. Under the plan, a new fishing privilege was attached to the boat, not to the fisher. Rather than limit labour, the government limited capital by limiting the number of boats in the fishery and allowing their licences to be bought and sold like any other commodity. Government funds were used to eliminate boats from the fleet and to invest in a new round of hatchery construction. Despite vocal and prolonged opposition from the UFAWU and the NATIVE BROTHERHOOD (the main bargaining agent for aboriginal fishers), both of whom warned of a new round of capital investment, tighter corporate control and more intense fishing pressure, the plan was implemented. The Davis Plan marked a radical restructuring of fisheries management. Although the number of vessels was reduced, overall capital investment in boats and gear skyrocketed, creating a much more efficient fleet and an enormous new financial burden that could only be paid for with more fish. Within 4 years, the Davis Plan was pronounced a failure. Rather than reducing effort and raising profit, it sparked speculative investment in boats and licences. But a remarkable 7-year boom during the 1970s disguised these effects. A strong economy and Canada's extension of its maritime economic zone out to the 200-mile (320 km) limit provoked a greater demand for fish, as well as higher prices and new investment in the industry. For a time, revenues outpaced costs.

The economic bubble burst in 1980, when fish prices collapsed and a general economic recession drove interest rates up. Debt-ridden fishers, still trying to pay off huge loans incurred to buy licences and build more efficient boats, faced bankruptcy. Peter PEARSE, a UBC resource economist, was appointed to conduct a Royal Commission into the Pacific fishery to tackle its problems once and for all. Pearse concluded that the failure of the Davis Plan was that it allowed remnants of an open-entry, common property fishery to remain. His final report in Sept 1982 declared flatly that "common property is repugnant to the principles of a market economy" and set out a 10-year program to privatize all of the province's fisheries. He recommended that all fisheries resources be parcelled up and auctioned to the highest bidder so that private interests could force efficiency into the industry. A key element of his proposals was the creation of private, for profit, salmon hatcheries, or ocean ranches, which would eliminate the necessity for any fleet at all by harvesting returning runs in traps at river mouths. No fish stocks, including salmon, would exist as a common property resource, only as private property subject to management by market forces. Determined resistance from coastal communities and fisheries organizations stalled the passage of legislation to implement this plan until the defeat of the Liberal government in 1984. But the newly-elected Conservatives proceeded to advance the privatization scheme through policy changes. The Mulroney government's determination to cut government spending and regulation produced a series of dramatic budget cuts at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), which reduced the ministry's research and management capability. Public investment in SALMONID ENHANCEMENT was cut back and then almost eliminated. Ottawa accelerated the privatization policy on several fronts, moving to create transferable quotas in fisheries like SABLEFISH and halibut and raising licence fees to pass more of the cost of management back to fishers. Both the federal and provincial governments undertook a crash program to introduce salmon farming (see AQUACULTURE, FIN FISH) in the province and a new "no net loss" habitat protection policy, designed by Pearse, made it possible for developers to trade artificial or man-made habitat for natural salmon-rearing areas slated for destruction. A ruling under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1989 marked a turning point in the process of restructuring by allowing, for the first time since the start of the 20th century, the export of unprocessed salmon from the province. Although Canada had long benefited from Alaskan salmon imported for processing in BC when Alaskan plants were oversupplied, the ban on the export of unprocessed salmon from BC had fostered a strong canning sector. The loss of this protection further reduced the economic benefits to Canada of salmon management. Seven canning lines left the province during the next 4 years.

The GATT ruling inaugurated a decade of unprecedented changes in salmon management. A 1990 Supreme Court of Canada decision known as the SPARROW DECISION found that the aboriginal right to fish for food, society or ceremonial purposes was a communal right protected by Section 35 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This right can only be interfered with for reasons of conservation and after due consultation with affected First Nations. In response to the Sparrow decision, and to lay the groundwork for a transition to negotiated treaties in the province, the federal government inaugurated the Aboriginal Fisheries Strategy. This change in fisheries management provoked outraged protests from non-aboriginal fishers. Racial tensions on the Fraser reached unprecedented levels, amid charges of rampant poaching. The turmoil reached a peak in 1994, when all sectors of the industry hoped to reap the return of record numbers of Fraser R sockeye to the spawning grounds. But hope turned to bitter disappointment and conflict when the run, forecast to be as many as 30 million fish, apparently "disappeared." A subsequent inquiry determined that the beleaguered federal fisheries department, its infrastructure weakened by years of budget reductions, made critical errors in the management of JOHNSTONE STRAIT seine fisheries, which nearly caused the destruction of the run.

The 1994 crisis occurred against the backdrop of efforts by the federal government to secure a renewed salmon treaty with the US (American fishers continued to intercept large numbers of Canada-bound fish). An overarching agreement achieved in 1984 had been beneficial to Canada, but attempts to extend its provisions beyond their original term proved futile. Negotiations failed, and the inability of the government to resolve the problems plaguing the industry generated renewed calls for restructuring, this time against a growing public anxiety about sustainable management of all resources. Worldwide overproduction of farmed salmon had driven prices for wild fish to all-time lows. Fleet capitalization and operating costs remained unacceptably high, despite nearly 20 years of buybacks and licence limitation. The Mifflin Plan, introduced in 1996 and named for then federal Fisheries Minister Fred Mifflin, sought to resolve the crisis with a 50% reduction in the salmon fleet, yet more concentration of ownership and higher fees for those who remained. The plan and the resistance it produced became a provincial election issue, and conflict between Victoria and Ottawa over the direction of fisheries management and the content of a renewed salmon treaty continued for 2 years. But Mifflin's successor, David ANDERSON, won the day with a radical recommitment to conservation as the fundamental principle of fisheries management. His emphasis on a new "risk averse" management philosophy mandated complete closures for any salmon fishery in which there was a risk of harvesting weak coho stocks. Anderson gave sport FISHING a higher management priority and required an emphasis on "selective harvest techniques," including fish traps and wheels, to allow abundant runs to be harvested while weaker ones escaped. These goals were substantially achieved by the end of decade.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the fishing industry remained an important part of the BC economy, generating nearly $900 million a year in wholesale value. But the wild salmon fishery was a much smaller part of the picture than it had been, with farmed salmon making up most of the difference. All fisheries were under some form of licence limitation and many were operated by private quota holders who paid royalties for the privilege. Fishers were increasingly sharecropping for shore-based quota or licence holders, often major processors. In the salmon fishery, total fishing closures were the main management tool of a fisheries department seeking to protect weaker runs without the research or enforcement capability of the past. In the summer of 2005, for instance, when only 30% of the total Fraser R salmon population returned to spawn, all commercial salmon fisheries had to be closed for fear of wiping out certain depressed stocks. The salmon treaty, which had done so much to rebuild Fraser stocks, had been converted into a mechanism to allow the US to oversee Canadian management of all salmon stocks. Canada's long-sought goal of equity—the right to a harvest equivalent to our production—was abandoned. For all intents and purposes, both salmon management and salmon processing were conducted as a continental exercise, without regard to the Canadian boundary. Habitat destruction, especially by logging, continued apace and new environmental concerns, particularly global warming and growing destruction of streams by urban development and pollution, cast a shadow over the resource. The century-long struggle over whether fisheries resources should be privately owned or held in common had largely been settled in favour of private ownership in all but the salmon fishery, where government policy, at least, respected the deeply held public conviction that fisheries resources are a common trust.
Reading: Dennis Brown, Salmon Wars: The Battle for the West Coast Salmon Fishery, 2005.
by Geoff Meggs