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Tofino crab fishery rocked by rights transfer pleading for federal help

Indigenous rights-based changes to Tofino crab fishery weigh heavily on family-run businesses
Longtime Tofino crab fisher Jeff Edwards holds up a Dungeness crab aboard his vessel ‘Camegan’. (Submitted photo)

Recent changes to trap limits have Dungeness crab fishers in Tofino fearing for their livelihoods.

When Dungeness season opens on April 1, commercial crab fishers in Area E (Tofino) must re-allocate 50 per cent of their inside trap allocation and 25 per cent of their offshore trap allocation to five Nuu-chah-nulth Nations (Ahousaht, Ehattesaht, Hesquiaht, Mowachaht/Muchalaht and Tla-o-qui-aht).

The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans is required to give priority to the Nuu-chah-nulth under an order from the British Columbia Court of Appeal. An April 2021 ruling declared the federal government has been infringing on the Nuu-chah-nulth right to a commercial fishery, ending a long and complex legal battle that was first launched in 2003.

“They have to do it,” said Wickanninish (Clifford Atleo), lead negotiator for Ahousaht First Nation. “I don’t agree with how they are treating the fishermen because we’ve only been treated that way for 100 years.”

He said DFO announced the changes to Area E Tofino harvesters before even consulting with the five Nuu-chah-nulth Nations.

“They didn’t talk to the Area E guys and they didn’t talk to us. We weren’t prepared for what happened,” said Wickanninish.

Jason Voong, president of the B.C. Crab Fishermen’s Association and second-generation Area E Tofino crab harvester, says the changes are essentially putting the cost of the court ruling on the backs of small, family-owned businesses.

“We as crab harvesters stand alongside reconciliation and fully support and honour our First Nations industry colleagues. Our frustration and concern is with the DFO’s lack of proper planning, engagement and consultation in the process and the subsequent consequences. We believe that as Canadians, we can do better,” said Voong.

Ucluelet residents Jeff and Cameron Edwards have been crab fishing Area E for the past 32 years. They are one of 33 family-run fishing businesses that will be impacted by these changes. Jeff told the Westerly that more than 40 emails to DFO have gone unanswered.

“As a commercial fisherman, I feel like I don’t exist in the eyes of the government. It’s the worst thing they could be doing for reconciliation, and I think a lot of working Canadians can identify with that. Compensation has to be done before in order to work for the fisherman,” Jeff said.

Cameron thinks it will be next to impossible to make a living with the proposed allocation of 24 traps replacing the 48 they usually go out with.

“We’re just looking for a conversation with DFO and fair market value for the licence,” said Cameron.

Part of DFO’s strategy for mitigating the impact on Area E Tofino crab harvesters includes the option of moving to another area or relinquishing their licence back to the government, but Voong says DFO has yet to provide any figures and their data is from 2020.

“We would like to just be able to talk to DFO so that everyone can make money, but they say they are not willing to sit down with us,” said Voong.

A new relationship between B.C. crab industry representatives and the five Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations has been formed in light of this new federal crab management plan.

“We had a meeting with the B.C. Crab Association and we have agreed to work together. That’s in the works as we speak. The government will be notified that that will be happening. We will be fishing side-by-side so it makes sense to get along,” said Wickaninnish.

“All we are after is to re-establish a way of life that we had before,” he said.

Courtenay—Alberni NDP MP Gord Johns said he met with Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray’s pacific advisor last week and is pressing the federal government to make collaboration with Area E Tofino crab harvesters a priority.

“They need to negotiate a fair transfer of the allocations and it needs to be done so that the people of Canada pay for the cost of the transfer not the working fishers on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. That’s what reconciliation should be. It shouldn’t be done in a way that’s on the onus of those only in a specific area. It should be done as a whole nation, and Canada is not doing that in this situation,” said MP Johns.

In an email to the Westerly, DFO said they are planning to mitigate any increases in allocation provided to the Five Nations as a result of the British Columbia Supreme Court decision through voluntary licence relinquishments.

“DFO takes the concerns of crab harvesters seriously and since December 2021 has been actively engaging with commercial crab area representatives to discuss options for mitigating the impacts on the commercial crab sector of a reduced fishing opportunity and encouraging participation in licence relinquishment programs when available,” DFO states.

“DFO has not used direct compensation for any increases to allocations in the past. The voluntary licence relinquishment approach is used to mitigate increases in allocations,” reads the email from DFO.

The department was unable to provide more details regarding the terms of the voluntary licence relinquishment.

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