Commercial and some charter fisherman are criticizing the charter and lodge fishing industry on the north coast for routinely skirting around catch limitations set by DFO, and for what they perceive is the inadequate and mostly voluntary enforcement measures used by DFO.
While the concerns are not new, the renewed public condemnation by critics comes while the commercial and recreational fisheries in British Columbia are locked in a dispute over a possible reallocating of the halibut quota in favour of the recreational sector.
Several individual fisherman – mostly from the commercial sector or retired from it – have come forward to point out that despite the recreational fishery’s claim that the quota is too small to support their fishery, charter boat businesses in Prince Rupert have been disregarding their quota for years by ignoring catch limitations; not just in halibut, but in all fisheries.
None of the ways this is done is illegal, recreational fishers can take advantage of loopholes in DFO regulations that are not easily closed. Catch limitations in most fisheries a set on how many fish you can catch a day and how many you’re allowed to have in possession at any one time. For halibut it’s two fish per day, with three in possession.
One legal way around the limitation if you’re on a multi-day fishing trip is shipping the fish you catch to your home so they are no longer in your possession. Some businesses have built doing this into their business model and have prices for different kinds of shipping coolers, and even a brochure with the prices for having your catch delivered to the airport for shipping or how much Greyhound will cost to ship it.
Another way to get around catch limitations is that a charter boat guide will catch fish under their own license and then give the fish to their clients as a gift once they get back to shore.
The Prince Rupert Northern View did an informal poll of charter boat businesses in Prince Rupert to see how many engage in this practice. Almost all of the businesses polled say they don’t gift fish themselves, and those who did said they only do so for repeat customers. Nearly every one of the business operators admitted that the practice does happen and that it’s a problem in the industry. Some believed it was a small minority who did it; others believed it was almost every other business than theirs.
“I know it happens around here, but I am dead-set against it. It’s unethical, it’s just not right,” says Willis Crosby from Ocean Star Salmon Charters.
Denis Burnip is the North Coast area chief for DFO. He says that these methods for getting around catch limits are tricky for enforcement officers to crack down on because the wording of the regulations simply doesn’t forbid it. He says DFO tries to use education as a means of prevention as often as it can, but enforcement officers can and do bring consequences on those who constantly game the system.
“If we continually have a problem with specific individuals or vessels with gifting of fish then we would probably have to step into a more significant investigation into what those activities really are . . . If we feel we have a real abuse, we’ll deal with it though some educational processes, by ramping up our activities in regards to the issue, if we have to,” says Burnip.
Joy Thorkelson from the Prince Rupert chapter of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union. She expresses frustration over the often-voluntary enforcement measures for recreational fishers while commercial fishers are required to pay out of their own pocket to have a DFO observer on board.
Thorkelson believes that the federal government should create a new fishing license for charter and lodge operators where enforcement measures would be part of the conditions of holding the license.
“There is no mandatory reporting, there are no mandatory unloading stations. In Alaska there are mandatory unloading stations,” says Thorkelson.
Martin Paish works for the B.C. Sports Fishing Institute. He says that these practices do happen, but they are not as common as they are being made out to be.
He believes that renewed complaints about them by commercial fishers are another tactic in the dispute over halibut quota.
“The idea of talking about catch-monitoring in the recreational fishery or guides gifting fish, that’s a smokescreen that’s being thrown up by the commercial fishery to deflect away from the real issue,” he said.
“The real issue is: is the recreational fishery important to Canada, is it important to the community of Prince Rupert? And if it is, is 12 per cent [of the halibut quota] a fair and equitable share of the catch?”