The third worst salmon harvest on the Fraser River was recorded in 2004. In Salmon Wars: The Battle for the West Coast Salmon Fishery (Harbour 2005 $25.95), Dennis Brown describes the tragedy of errors that led to the industry's malaise throughout the province. The decline is described as scandalous. According to Harbour Publishing... "Dennis Brown, a member of a third generation fishing family, was born and raised in Vancouver. He was educated at the University of British Columbia, where he studied English literature and political science. In 1980, he joined the staff of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union and worked as the union's Fraser Valley organizer, dealing primarily with the gillnet and troll fleets. In 1990 he was elected to the post of business agent of the UFAWU and three years later he became secretary-treasurer. In 1996 he was hired as Premier Glen Clark's special advisor on the Pacific Salmon Treaty."
[BCBW 2005] "Fishing"
[BCBW 2005] "Fishing"
Articles: 1 Article for this author
Both sides now
It takes two sides to make a war.
In Dennis Brown's Salmon Wars (Harbour $25.95), you have the DFO on one side, with allies in the fish processors and certain fishing groups, and you have small boat fishermen on the other side, many of whom were members of the United Fishermen and Allied Worker's Union (UFAWU), aligned with independent fishers, plant workers and the coastal communities.
Subtitled 'The Battle for the West Coast Salmon Fishery', Brown's critical study recalls ferry blockades, the occupation of Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) offices, international incidents and the hard-nosed negotiations to save the salmon stocks and maintain communities during the 1990s.
To complicate matters, occasionally the two adversarial sides would declare a truce and jointly confront the Americans.
In southern B.C. waters, Canadian and American fleets squabbled over shares of Fraser bound sockeye salmon. The DFO would sometimes permit the Canadian fleet almost unlimited fishing to choke off the runs before they reached US waters.
Similarly, on the North Coast, fishermen fought with Alaskans over their interception of fish bound for the Skeena River. In July, 1997, this disagreement led to the blockading of the Alaska Ferries vessel Malaspina in Prince Rupert harbour by frustrated gillnet and seine fishers. Eventually the dispute was resolved but not until tempers had flared on both sides of the border.
At issue for the DFO side and the UFAWU side was access to the salmon. DFO's management plan was based on a report written in 1982 by Peter Pearse, a forest economist, who had advocated the privatization of the resource and a massive fleet reduction. The Pearse Report inflamed much of the fishing community, for it made no mention of the social disruption that implementation would bring and placed a minor emphasis on protecting and enhancing the resource itself.
In 1995, DFO launched a well crafted attack using recommendations from a report on the 1994 season written by John Fraser, a former Minister of Fisheries. They convened a so-called Round Table of key industry participants and others, getting them to agree to a regime of single gear and area licensing.
The word "gear" meant the method of fishing, be it trolling with hooks, gillnetting with a net or seining with a larger boat and different type of net. "Area licensing" meant that seine fishers would have a license to fish in one of two designated areas; gillnetters and trollers would have to choose to fish in one of three designated areas.
Fishermen wishing to use another gear type or fish in more that one area would have to buy the required license from another vessel. As well, the federal government came up with some funding to buy back a small number of licenses. This whole scheme was the "Mifflin Plan", named after the Minister of Fisheries at the time.
In terms of fleet reduction, DFO's plan seemed to work like hotcakes. For instance, a gillnetter who may have started his season fishing in the North, then worked his way south, and ending on the Fraser, would need three licenses instead of one. He would have to buy the other two licenses at prices from $70,000 to $100,000 each. The coast was in an uproar over this, with massive protests and delegations to Ottawa. DFO stonewalled to get its way and by the 2000 season the salmon fleet was reduced to 50% of its pre-Mifflin size.
Despite severe curtailment of opportunities for the remaining fleet, in 2004 some 1,874,686 Fraser sockeye went "missing". These missing fish were the difference in numbers between those that the DFO counted entering the Fraser River and those that could not be accounted for when the runs reached the spawning grounds.
As one wades through all of the figures and acronyms, the accounts of meetings and commissions, the announcements of the latest DFO program to fix the last failed program, and the mystery of missing fish, one is forced to conclude that the real losers in the salmon war have been the salmon themselves and the hardworking coastal folk that once depended on them.
A third-generation fisherman, Dennis Brown was the premier's special advisor on the Pacific Salmon Treaty in 1996. There may be a bias in favour of fishermen in Brown's account, given that he was also a business agent and secretary-treasurer of the UFAWU, but with his intimate connections to the fleet, Brown can take the reader behind the scenes. It makes for dramatic reading.
-- Lorne Finlayson is a former fisherman on the West Coast.