By MICHAEL LAYCOCK
Comox Valley Echo (Courtenay, B.C.)
Dec. 12, 1995

Local fishermen are bracing themselves in the wake of reports that the B.C. commercial-fishing fleet is facing reductions of up to 50 per cent.

“They feel uneasy, I’m sure,” said Rick Nordstrom, president of the Pacific Trollers Association, a group that represents more than 200 independent trollers in B.C.

“It’s pretty hard for the guys right now.”

Speaking to reporters in Richmond Dec. 6, federal Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin suggested his ministry is considering cutting the size of the seine, gillnet and troll fleet by up to one half.

Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans official Greg Savard says the department aims to reduce the number of boats in the fleet, but no firm decision on the exact number to be reduced has been made.

“Overall, you’ll see less boats eventually,” he said in an interview Dec. 8.

Pacific Policy Roundtable talks between the DFO and representatives of the commercial, sport and Native fishing sectors have been ongoing since September.

“We’re still in the consultation stage,” Savard said.

The industry groups were supposed to have made recommendations last week to Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin regarding how to make the fishery viable over the long term, but the groups asked for more time, he added.

The industry has until the end of this year to come up with its own plan to reduce the size of the 4,400-boat fleet.

The Ministry will have to decide if the industry’s recommendations go far enough and to determine the time frame over which any reductions would be made, Savard said.

“No decisions have been made yet.”

Tobin is expected to make an announcement by mid-January with respect to the fate of the fleet, Savard said.

The talk of cuts comes on the heels of a distressingly poor salmon-fishing season this year. Early estimates indicate the harvest was down 42 per cent on average from recent seasons.

Decreases in coho, sockeye and chinook salmon catches led to an income drop of 65 per cent - from a four-year average landed value of $210 million to $90 million.

Savard said a number of factors combined to put pressure on salmon stocks this past season.

Better technology among the fleet - for example, fish-finders such as sonar - has meant the fleet can catch higher numbers of fish in less time.

In addition, species such as sockeye historically go through a drop in numbers every four years.

For instance, returning Fraser River sockeye were down to five million this year compared to last year’s 16 million.

“There’s physically less fish this year,” Savard said. “It’s just a natural phenomenon.”

And making matters worse for the B.C. fleet was July’s huge salmon harvest off Alaska that flooded the market and drove prices down.

Some options being considered to reduce the pressure on salmon stocks include:

– maintaining the same total number of boats but cutting the number allowed in certain fishery areas,

– single-gear licensing (ie. a vessel would be permitted to fish only with one kind of gear, as opposed to up to three kinds), and

– per-boat catch quotas, as opposed to the allowable-catch system for each industry sector.

The impending fleet cuts have local fishermen concerned, says Pacific Trollers Association president Nordstrom.

“It doesn’t make anyone very happy,” he said Dec. 10. “Things are pretty tough.”

Long-time local fisherman Rick Newsom echoed Nordstrom’s appraisal.

“It’s going to create hardship for a lot of guys,” Newsom said Dec. 8. “A lot of them will be forced to sell out.”

Still, the proposed cuts come as little surprise, said Nordstrom, who has been fishing for 23 years and acts as chairman of the troll panel at the Roundtable talks.

“Most of the people realize that we have to do something,” Nordstrom said. “It’s just, ‘What do you have to do?’”

Nordstrom said he agrees that a 25- to 50-per-cent cut to the troll fleet in the next five years would meet the objectives of conservation, industry viability and manageability.

“The idea is to keep as many people fishing as we possibly can.”

A number of steps should be taken in the next few years, Nordstrom said, including a government/industry buy-back program for fishermen’s licences and government guarantees on allocation (essentially, the percentage of the allowable catch assigned to each industry sector).

And cutting the size of the fleet is not the sole answer, Nordstrom said, adding that stock replacement, salmon enhancement, habitat restoration, and financial partnerships with government should be priorities.

Yet the federal government aims to cut $3 million from B.C. salmon-enhancement programs in 1997.

“It’s silliness. It doesn’t make any sense,” he said, adding that more funds need to be put into such programs.

And the industry faces pressure through competition from huge fish-farm industries in Norway, Chile and here at home, he said.

“They are part of our problem.”