Mid-February, before COVID-19 shifted the status quo, over 120 people connected to the fishing industry met at the Fisheries for Communities Gathering in Nanaimo, BC. Ecotrust Canada was there to help facilitate, to listen, and to learn how we can be part of the systems change that sees a more vibrant commercial fishing economy on the West Coast.
What did we learn? That the people who harvest fish and seafood on the West Coast have the potential to revive and sustain the social, economic, and cultural fabric of our remote coastal and Indigenous communities — but current federal and provincial policies are holding them back, unlike Atlantic Canada where there are clear policies to protect small boat fish harvesters.
We heard of many challenges, but one of the most pressing was how BC fisheries policy has allowed corporate interests and investors to snatch up fishing access on the coast.
“Too often, the financial benefit from our fishing industry is funnelled into the hands of those who don’t fish.” – James Lawson, a Haíɫzaqv commercial fisherman
Inside the pages of the recently released Fisheries for Communities Proceedings Report the vital discussions at the Gathering from the people entrenched in the fishing industry have been published to share with policymakers, academics, and journalists with the hopes that they will join the movement to build sustainable, fair, and prosperous fishing communities. As stated at the Gathering by fourth generation fish harvester, Duncan Cameron, from Pender Harbour, “I don’t think the iron is getting any hotter than it is right now, and we’ve identified some of these key recommendations, and we’ve heard a lot of voices, and it’s time to just act on these things and get them done.”
A meeting with the Fisheries Minister
The growing concerns exacerbated by COVID-19 regarding the social and economic impacts of West Coast fisheries licensing policies were brought to an online meeting with the federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan in August. The Fisheries for Communities network wants to see real change in how fisheries are managed and the big ask of the Federal Government by those in attendance was that:
Effective January 2022, any BC fishing licence or quota sold must be sold to a bona fide fish harvester or a BC First Nation, and, that by January 2021 all licences renewed annually must state the beneficial owner of that licence.
This was felt to be a clear and real first step toward recapturing the benefits of BC fisheries for BC communities.
Calling for action from the Province and Ottawa
Understanding what is happening in West Coast fisheries can’t be summed up in a simple soundbite or in this blog. The Proceedings Report is rich with on-the-ground (and water) fisheries experience, the challenges and opportunities for BC fisheries, in-depth research on measuring the social and economic impacts of the current fisheries regime, how we can learn from other regions, and where there is common ground and will to move forward.
The tools for change are at our fingertips. The House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans (FOPO) 2019 report, West Coast Fisheries: Sharing Risks and Benefits and BC Premier John Horgan’s Wild Salmon Advisory Council report, each lay out clear recommendations and actionable steps to improve BC fisheries policies and regulations. The Gathering allowed the prioritization of these recommendations to call for immediate change, which led to the Gathering closing with a powerful consensus statement calling for action by both governments. It also provided the direction for the specific ask (above) to the Fisheries Minster, a message we’ve also shared in-person with the leader of the NDP Jagmeet Singh.
Our coast and our fisheries are critical to the future of a sustainable economy. They provide meaningful livelihoods, while supporting community viability and health benefits, cultural resilience, intergenerational sharing of knowledge, local stewardship and marine management, and so much more.
Please take the time to read through the Proceedings Report. COVID-19 has only convinced us of the need to dive deeper into food security and local employment options for building resilient place-based economies. Local access to fisheries is an essential part of that approach.
“There’s real power in our story of bringing benefits back to active fish harvesters.”– Guy Johnston, Fish harvester, United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union (UFAWU-Unifor)
Fisheries for Communities 2.0 Consensus
Despite decades of divisive policies that have fractured the industry and the region and undermined the viability of independent fishing enterprises and coastal communities, participants with diverse interests came to a consensus at the Gathering on the need to move forward with real and immediate action.
There was consensus in the room that the Federal Government needs to formally respond to and act on the recommendations of the May 2019 FOPO Report: “West Coast Fisheries: Sharing Risks and Benefits”.
Further, the Province of BC must become a real partner with the Federal Government to achieve needed changed in BC fisheries, starting with establishing a Provincial Ministry for Fisheries.
The Gathering participants agreed that all 20 FOPO recommendations are relevant and need to be considered, but certain recommendations are especially critical and should receive special priority.