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Ensuring our dockside fisheries monitors are ready in all circumstances

Commercial fishing, an essential service, couldn’t stop for COVID-19 and that meant our fisheries team at Ecotrust Canada had to reimagine how to deliver its dockside fisheries monitoring programs on the West Coast.

Since 2013, we’ve been certified by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to train at-sea and dockside fisheries monitors. As a charity, we have explored many pathways to build a more sustainable, fair, and vibrant economy for the communities we work with — and dockside fisheries monitoring is one of them.

On the West Coast of Vancouver Island, we provide fisheries monitoring services to the five Nuu-chah-nulth Nations through the Ha’oom Fisheries Society, whose members manage and harvest wild sustainable seafood from their traditional territories in Tofino, Zeballos, and Gold River.

In April, the COVID-19 pandemic presented us with many unknowns, including what day the fishery would open, and how to set up in-person training when social distancing was strictly enforced. With the fishery possibly opening as early as May 1, Gwendolyn Bennett, Ecotrust Canada’s fisheries deployment coordinator knew they needed DFO-certified dockside monitors trained and ready to collect data from fishing boats coming into harbour.

“It was difficult to even find a space to hold the training,” said Gwendolyn. “We adapted our training plan so we were doing everything we could to mitigate risk of spreading the virus, including narrowing the class down to four people, all of whom live locally”

The trainers, however, did not live in town. So our fisheries project manager Dianne Villesèche, based in Prince Rupert, joined an aquatic science technician from DFO to deliver the training over video streaming from April 21-25. Next, we had to sort out how the dockside fisheries monitors would safely interact with folks on the ground during a pandemic.

Kadin Snook, fisheries program coordinator for Ha’oom Fisheries Society, worked with us to create a set of COVID-19 protocols for interacting with fish plants, buyers, and skippers.  “We developed a series of recommendations working with Ecotrust Canada to make sure the same measures and standards were being used so fishers could feel safe and secure.”

Our next challenge was the delay in the fishery. The smaller First Nations commercial fishery for halibut and lingcod kicked off the season at the end of May, but the biggest fishery, offshore salmon, was pushed back until mid-June. But we were prepared. By the time the first fisheries offload took place, there were four designated monitors in Tofino, and three in Zeballos ready with gloves and masks to collect data.

“It’s very apparent that Ecotrust Canada is willing to act quickly in an otherwise adverse situation, and that’s been appreciated. They’ve worked hard to respect physical distancing needs, but at the same time they worked well collaboratively to make sure the needs of the Nations and DFO are met,” Snook said.

With the economic hardships facing fish harvesters during the COVID-19 crisis due to border closures, a pause in tourism, and limitations on how restaurants can serve local customers, it’s essential that we continue to provide affordable dockside monitoring services to the five Nuu-chah-nulth Nations.

“COVID or no, I feel good to be a part of the Nations’ accessing their right to fish, and facilitating their capacity to do it in a way that is economical, while collecting the data so they can manage the fisheries within the five Nations,” Gwendolyn said.