Vancouver Island sport fishers and charter operators are shocked and disappointed by conservation measures announced Tuesday by the federal government to protect chinook salmon in B.C.
The Fraser River will remain closed to all salmon fishing until Aug. 23, and there is a non-retention restrictions placed on chinook for the southern Strait of Georgia until July 31, and July 14 for northern Strait of Georgia, followed by one-per-day retention allowances. On the west coast of Vancouver Island, the troll fishery that typically starts in May has been closed until August 1 to allow stocks of high concern to migrate there.
Those restrictions, say western Vancouver Island charter operators, will be devastating for their industry – an industry that employs an estimated 9,000 people and has an economic impact on the west coast of Vancouver Island of $1.1 billion.
“Our government has failed us. They have lied to us and the decision they’ve made is a purely political one, not one based on science,” said Ryan Chamberlain, the owner of Vancouver Island Lodge in Sooke.
“They’ve gone completely overboard with these regulations and haven’t taken into account the socio-economic harm that they’re doing to our region.”
Campbell River fishing tourism operator Jeremy Maynard said the new measures will deal a significant blow to sports fishing enterprises, tackle stores, hotels and other businesses in fishing destinations.
“The ripple effect’s going to be huge in this community, and in communities all around the inner south coast,” Maynard said.
The Fisheries Department’s regional director general Rebecca Reid says urgent protection measures include the closure of a commercial fishery involving seven endangered stocks.
Reid said harvest management measures alone won’t deal with declining numbers of chinook in recent years due to multiple factors including warming waters because of climate change and destruction of habitat that must be rebuilt.
She said last year’s catch reduction by one-third to limit pressure on the stocks was not enough and the decrease in chinook also affects southern resident killer whales that depend on the salmon as their preferred prey.
Chamberlain disputes the premise entirely.
“This isn’t science. We’re being painted as the villains here but the truth is that we take such a small part of the salmon stocks that putting these restrictions in place will have a devastating effect on our industry while doing very little to have any impact on the chinook stocks,” he said.
“Environmental groups that are pressuring the government to shut the sport fishing industry down so that the whales have more food, and space to forage, are opinion based, not science and they do not have the local experience of what it is like to be on the water daily, and understand how we have no real impact on these whales foraging efforts.”
Maynard, who is the chairperson of the Sports Fishing Advisory Board’s chinook and coho working group, said climate change is largely to blame for the decline of wild chinook populations from the interior Fraser River watershed.
But certain chinook populations remains strong, including those on the Cowichan and the Puntledge rivers, he said.
“Even though our impact in the Campbell River area or the Strait of Georgia area is extremely small on the particular stocks of concern, we do encounter some of them,” Maynard said.
“There are some chinook stocks that are doing well but, unfortunately, they’re all mixed up in the ocean,” he said.
Rollie Rose, of Sooke Salmon Charters, said it’s obvious that environmental groups have the ear of government.
“It’s sad. These are people who are well funded and who are all about telling people what they can’t do, but do nothing themselves to help to improve the stocks. People doing that are the fishermen,” Rose said.
“There are going to be whole communities up the coast that are just not going to survive. They rely on sport fishing, “
Chamberlain said that the restrictions will create long-term damage to the tourist industry that will take years to recover from.
“This is a win for environmental groups who just don’t understand that the changes to save the salmon need to happen in the river systems, not the oceans. I want to take these groups out on my boat so they can see first hand the way we fisherman have such little impact, I’ve reached out and they just don’t respond.”
The non-retention policy means that perhaps 30 per cent of chinook sports fishing packages will be lost at Island resorts like Painter’s Lodge and April Point, according to Patrick Blanch, director of operations for the popular resort.
“I think it’s going to have a significant impact on the community, not just our properties,” Blanch said.
But the changes didn’t come out of the blue and are likely necessary for sustainability, he said.
“Sustainability is something we believe very strongly in, as a group,” he said. “I think it’s for the greater good.”
The company’s marine operations manager was included in talks with DFO ahead of Tuesday’s policy announcement, he said.
Blanch also said he’s confident that opportunities including catch-and-release trips and fishing for other species will still provide an experience “that we believe is unique and unparalleled.”
Local conservationist Sandra Milligan, president of the Greenways Land Trust, said she supports restrictions on chinook fisheries – though she noted that people should look at the big picture, including what she described as a relatively high economic value per fish of recreational chinook compared to the commercial fishery.
She also noted that on the Island’s west coast, the inshore recreational limit is two chinook per day after at-risk chinook stocks have passed through. Milligan also noted that she’s married to a sport fishing guide, and they’re expecting cancellations on fishing cruises to start immediately.
“I obviously would prefer my husband has as many guests out on the water as possible, but I recognize the need for caution,” she said in an email.