The importance of the recreational halibut fishery

Politicians who promised action prior to last election have let fishermen down.

RECREATIONALLY CAUGHT HALIBUT produce considerable wealth for coastal B.C. Here

RECREATIONALLY CAUGHT HALIBUT produce considerable wealth for coastal B.C. Here

As with all fishing issues there is always a lot of bureaucratic fog put up by government decision makers when they look at the real issues considering the value of recreationally caught halibut to the people of Canada – the common property owners of the resource.

I have just read a book called Oceana – Our Endangered Oceans by Ted Danson with Michael D’Orso. I submit it has some important messages for the people who manage and divide the halibut resource among recreational, First Nations and the commercial sector. The book has a world-wide perspective; while they use many American examples I suggest they also apply to our Canadian fisheries.

Recreational fishing, Whit Fosburgh, page 91:

“For millions of Americans, the mystery and anticipation associated with fishing in the ocean provides a very real and tangible connection with the natural world around us. Hunters and anglers were the original conservationists, fighting for public lands, environmental laws and game regulations to protect and restore the species they love to pursue. Today, saltwater recreational angling is a multibillion-dollar business, employing 400,000 people.”

Gifting the lion’s share of a common property resource (in this case Canadian halibut) to the commercial sector is a matter of public record. The federal government has just given 85 per cent of the international halibut allocation to the commercial sector. In simple arithmetic 436 Canadian commercial license holders, or just over one per cent of the fishermen, were gifted allocations to take 85 per cent of the resource. In the meantime, over 300,000 recreational anglers get 15 per cent of their own common property resource. This is not far off the 1% get 99% of sharing wealth on Wall Street that we hear so much about.

There is another interesting analogy that needs examining – long distance management of the fishery. Ottawa is about 3,000 miles away from the west coast of Canada and the west coast of Africa is a few thousand miles away from the European Union. The European Union has over-fished its coastal waters and is searching the planet for fishing grounds for its huge subsidized commercial deepwater trawl fleet.

They found pay dirt in the offshore and near shore waters off the west coast of Africa. Deals were made with coastal countries to fish their waters, and they were paid significant money for the privilege. In the meantime the local fishers who fished in small boats soon discovered that all they could catch were very few small, undesirable fish. One fisherman put it as follows as he pointed at his empty boat: “Now the only thing we catch is water.”

There is a tragic message in this fiasco. There have been boatloads of starving refugees from the west coast of Africa seeking refuge in Europe through the Canary Islands. Not too long ago they made a subsistence living from their homeland marine waters fishing near shore in small boats. Note: the information for this paragraph came from pages 211 to 215 of Oceana.

You might suggest it is a bit of a stretch to compare our halibut fishery to the problems of the developing countries, but I suggest it is an appropriate analogy. I would also like to know who owns the halibut licenses that get halibut quota and how many of them are foreign controlled.

One thing is certain – under the current allocation the recreational anglers who fish the halibut grounds of the west coast of Canada will, by legislation, be allowed to only catch halibut about two thirds of the way through the season. Much has been made of the importance of keeping small coast communities economically viable. Recreational fishing through guiding and tourism are important components of this mix.

During the last federal election the Prime Minister, the Minister of Fisheries and our local Member of Parliament promised the recreational fishing sector that the allocation issue would be rectified. They have failed us.

Maybe central governments far removed from the coast feel comfortable in making these unjust allocations in the same manner that counties bordering the west coast of Africa justify their misguided allocations of a common property resource. If we lose the connection between people and the oceans that halibut angling provides, we lose a strong voice for conservation in coastal British Columbia.

In these times of climate change and global warming we need all the vioces we can get.

Ralph Shaw is a master fly fisherman who was awarded the Order of Canada in 1984 for his conservation efforts. In 20 years of writing a column in the Comox Valley Record it has won several awards.