At 71 years old, Brian Wadhams, a commercial fisherman from ‘Namgis First Nation, bought a fishing boat for his two sons and grandsons. While the future of the fishing industry was discussed over the two-day Fisheries for Communities Gathering, Brian stood up to share his story of hope with fellow fishermen in the room, as well as First Nations leaders, industry associations, NGOs, academics, policy experts, and federal politicians. Buying that fishing boat for his family was his way of re-energizing his boys, who he’s trained to be expert fishermen, and who love to be on the water.
“It’s a scary situation for them,” Brian said. “If we don’t develop processes where we can give this next generation the opportunity to fish the way we did, then there’s really no hope. But I still believe the cup is half full, and we’re the only ones that can knock it over.”
Over 150 people attended the third Fisheries for Communities Gathering, facilitated by the Fisheries for Communities Network on February 22-23, 2023. The Network planned this gathering at the Fairmont Empress Hotel, on Songhees, Esquimalt and W̱SÁNEĆ territories, in Victoria, BC. I was there to capture the event through my lens, and support where needed. I’ve been on a few commercial fishing boats as an observer, and I couldn’t help but feel like the team that pulled the event together was like a large crew working in tandem to keep the ship running smoothly toward a similar goal — find a way forward that brings hope to fish harvesters and coastal communities.
At the gathering, we heard from third and fourth-generation fishermen, including Indigenous harvesters whose ancestors have been managing the resource for thousands of years. Over the two days of presentations and roundtable discussions, there was a general sentiment to implement an owner-operator policy in Pacific fisheries. While there were more than 30 fishers in attendance, many others wanted to be at the gathering but were busy at sea working and piloting their boats. However, that didn’t stop 16 fish harvesters from calling in to participate and voice their support from the deck and the docks.
“I don’t see a future without owner-operator policy,” said Theo Assu from the docks before signing off to manage his crew in Campbell River.
The challenges harvesters are experiencing
In the first panel, we heard from Melissa Collier, a fish harvester based in Campbell River and Courtenay, BC, who spoke passionately about her family-run operation, and the indescribable feeling she gets when she sees people enjoying the sustainably caught seafood they’ve worked so hard to harvest. But each year, being a fish harvester gets harder as coastal communities slowly lose their infrastructure, such as marine fuel stations, showers and washrooms at the dock, and marine supply stores. Crews are then forced to take more risks with their safety because access to repair support and supplies aren’t there when they need it.
It may come as a surprise, but only six corporations own over a quarter of BC fishing licences. These numbers were shared by Jennifer Silver, a professor and fisheries researcher who spoke on Day 1 of the Gathering. As local access to fisheries has been lost by working harvesters and adjacent communities, the wealth that comes from the fishery is drained away. Melissa’s story is just one example of how fishermen are experiencing the impact of this.
The solutions we heard
Melissa and Joel want their children to be fifth-generation fishermen, should they choose to be, and for that to happen they need a healthy and sustainable fishing industry.
“We’re all here to ensure that people are owner operators, that people actually have access to licences, can control their access to licences, can make decisions on where, how, when they fish, and who they sell to, so they have more bargaining power, and they have the full autonomy and ability to fish and ensure that those resources are coming back into their own vessels, businesses, and communities,” she said.
Under an owner-operator policy, only active fish harvesters would be allowed to own fishing licences and quota on the Pacific Coast of BC. Without such a policy, ownership and access to fisheries is often controlled by “armchair fishermen” such as corporations and outside investors. These investors profit from the resource and squeeze out active fish harvesters and local fishing communities from benefiting from the many tangible and intangible values in BC fisheries.
Serving up wild BC seafood
The conversation continued into the night when six chefs, dedicated to the Fisheries for Communities cause, travelled from their restaurants across the province to create artistic, and mouth-watering gourmet plates of wild seafood — scallops, oysters, geoduck, salmon, ling cod, prawns, tuna, and Dungeness crab — harvested by small-scale fishers to a room full of provincial politicians. We all stopped to listen to Corky Evans, former BC Minister of Fisheries, the closing speaker, who lamented over his time in office.
“I failed as Minister of Fisheries to sustain the wild fishery and the fishers. I held the fishery portfolio while the federal government privatized our common property resource,” he told a captivated audience. Corky took us through the history of that decision, and the outcome — a West Coast fishery facing unique challenges due to the privatization of marine resources.
Harvesters call for change
After hearing testimonies and research from First Nations leaders, harvesters, and academics, three federal ministers who are part of the Standing Committee of Fisheries and Oceans promised to share what they learned at the gathering with the Fisheries Minister.
“What the three of us have heard is that it isn’t just about the money, it’s about culture, it’s about history, it’s about social values, it’s about building and sustaining strong communities,” said Ken Hardie, MP Fleetwood-Port Kells.
To drive their message home, three active fish harvesters took the stage calling for owner-operator policy on the West Coast. Then 16 harvesters, who couldn’t make the gathering in person, called in from their boats or the docks, and each took their turn calling for change.
“I just got word about three hours ago that I don’t have a licence now because a plant went behind closed doors and outbid me,” said Kyle Lewis, fisherman and vice president of the UFAWU-UNIFOR. “The person that got it is not going to be fishing the boat, they just got the licence for somebody else to fish. We need owner-operator policy. Three hours ago, I had a licence and now I don’t know what I’m going to do. I want my kids to be able to fish.”
The work didn’t end with the gathering. The Fisheries for Communities Network is now busy processing every detail to share publicly in a report and with key policymakers to enact change before it’s too late. Like Brian Wadhams, I’m a cup-half-full kind of person. After witnessing how so many people from across the province, country, and even across the world, from a variety of backgrounds, came together to work toward a common goal, I’m leaning on the side of hope.
- Dai Fukasaku (Prince Rupert)
- Aman Dosanj (Kelowna)
- Stacy Johnston + Minette Lotz (Naramata)
- Oliver Kienast (Sooke)
- Morgan Wilson (Victoria)
- Oyster Shucker Mica Verbrugge (Effingham Oyster, Port Albernie)
- About the Fisheries for Communities Network
- “Hope and optimism following the Fisheries for Communities Gathering” by Sonia Strobel, Skipper Otto
- “Why 18 BC Fishers Called In From The Decks Of Their Boats To Light A Fire Under DFO” by Geoff Meggs, West Coast Now
- “Just 6 Corporations Control Over A Quarter Of BC Fishing Licences, New Research Reveals” by Geoff Meggs, West Coast Now