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Commercial harvesters “financially devastated” UFAWU-Unifor online survey finds

79 B.C. commercial salmon fisheries closed for the 2021 season
Freshly caught salmon. (Photo: Joy Thorkelson/courtesy UFAWU-Unifor)

The abrupt closure of nearly 60 per cent of B.C. salmon fisheries this summer has left commercial harvesters “financially devastated,” according to a survey by the United Fishermen & Allied Workers’ Union (UFAWU-Unifor).

The survey, which was open to both members and non-members of UFAWU-Unifor, found the unexpected loss of income to have been the biggest blow to harvesters following the effects of the pandemic on the industry.

On June 29, Bernadette Jordan, Minister of Fisheries (DFO), Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, announced the closure of 79 B.C. commercial salmon fisheries for the 2021 season under the $647 million Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative.

The strategy is the largest-ever government investment to stabilize and protect Pacific salmon for the ecosystems, people, and communities that depend upon their sustainability, a June 29 DFO new release stated.

“It was very abrupt. It was unusual for them to release it in such a way. Fishermen had no notice essentially, they had spent a lot of money getting ready for the season as if it was going to go ahead … there’s a lot of time and thousands and thousands of dollars that go into preparing for the season,” Liam Hill-Allan, communications organizer for UFAWU-Unifor, told The Northern View.

The closure of so many salmon fisheries implies over-fishing is a key cause in the salmon crisis, but opinions within the industry are divided on the cause, Hill-Allan said. However, a better approach should have been to look at fisheries in a case-by-case basis instead of imposing controversial blanket closures due to each area ’s unique circumstances and potential issues, he said.

A fishery is the geographic area of ocean where commercial harvesters are allowed to catch fish and other marine products.

“It’s probably more significant in a lot of ways than COVID because it’s taking away their opportunity to go and fish,” Hill-Allan said.

People don’t know if they should stay in the industry or not, Hill-Allan added.

“The government hasn’t put anything forward saying ‘if salmon improve, this is our plan,’ — they haven’t done that yet and that’s something we’re asking for,” he said.

In anticipation of the upheaval the closures may have on harvesters due to the time needed for stocks to replenish and stabilize, the DFO announced the Pacific Salmon Commercial Transition Program. The program offers harvesters the chance to voluntarily retire their licences for “fair market value” and to facilitate a transition into a smaller commercial harvesting sector.

There has also been the Fish Harvester Benefit and Grant Program available to help harvesters financially throughout the pandemic, but the program has had it’s own set of issues within the industry.

READ MORE: Appeal deadline for Fish Harvester Benefit and Grant Program extended

For a lot of commercial harvesters, the retirement plan is their boats, gear and licence. In ideal circumstances, if you are a licence-holder, you can sell your licence with your boat when you are ready for retirement, Hill-Allan said.

“If there’s no fisheries, and people don’t want to buy those licenses [and] they don’t want to buy those boats, you’re basically screwed and your retirement is derailed,” Hill-Allan said.

What isn’t accounted for in the program is the many commercial harvesters who cannot take advantage of the Pacific Salmon Commercial Transition Program. Many harvesters now-a-days lease their licences instead of buying them outright and therefore are left financially vulnerable, Hill-Allan said.

The Northern View has reach out the the DFO for further comment.

READ MORE: B.C. closes Skeena watershed for steelhead effective Oct. 12

 Norman Galimski | Journalist 
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