Feds force B.C. salmon fishers to stay tied up; deny them compensation

Calvin Cedar, B.C. fisher

MAKING LIFE DIFFICULT for B.C. salmon fishers hasn’t helped. Salmon stocks continue to decline. Salmon fishers continue to face deep uncertainties about whether or not their fishery has a future and, how to transition to a new way of life, if it doesn’t.

What makes life so difficult for the fishers right now is the fact they cannot go fishing. The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) closed nearly 60 per cent of B.C.’s commercial salmon fisheries last year in a radical bid to save salmon stocks.

“It’s put a lot of people in tough spots,” says James Lawson, president of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union (UFAWU).

“People are defaulting on loans, losing homes, all sorts of things.”

No compensation

Denied a way to earn a living is bad enough, says Lawson, but what makes matters worse for the fishers is that they do not get the relief loggers and farmers get to compensate them for their loss of income.

A UFAWU press release states: “Despite nearly $360 million dedicated to current emergency and transitional support for forestry and agriculture workers impacted by climate change and new environmental policies, BC fish harvesters impacted by these same factors are being entirely overlooked and ignored.”

The cumulative effects of shrinking fisheries across the board, and the abrupt closures of the majority of the salmon fisheries, are squeezing many harvesters to a breaking point, said Lawson.

Mental health concerns

“We thought it was going to be so bad, after just the salmon closures, that we added a mental health package to our benefits for union fishermen,” he said.

“Because we know a lot of people are going to be going through a tough mental and emotional time having the only livelihood they know stripped away from them.”

The federal government says it will not leave the salmon fishers high and dry. It announced a buyback program last summer, for individual commercial salmon licence-holders.

The program was originally slated to roll out last fall. The union says fish harvesters still haven’t received any concrete details on the licence buyback program or a timeline for its implementation.

Buyback program inadequate

Regardless, a buyback program is wholly inadequate to cover the financial devastation being experienced by thousands of workers and fishers who bring wild salmon to people’s kitchen tables, says Lawson.

Many commercial fishing boat owners and crews don’t own salmon licences, but rather lease them or fish for licence-holders—some being large seafood processing companies.

“Me along with thousands of other people who are part of the labour force that bring seafood from the ocean to the processing plant are totally being left out of any kind of compensation package,” Lawson said.

How best to protect and conserve the salmon stocks is complicated. Thirty years of reductions in fishing itself has done little to stop the decline. Factors like climate change and land use polices, that are much harder to control, are far more significant.

Threats from climate change

Conservationists on both coasts say better land use planning and targeting salmon habitat for protection from climate change will have a big impact. In New Brunswick, the Atlantic Salmon Federation is working to protect their most-critical cold water springs and brooks feeding into important salmon rivers to give salmon a chance tor survive extreme heat waves.

In B.C. there are huge swaths of great potential salmon habitat throughout the Fraser River watershed that have been blocked by structures such as culverts and road crossings. It’s possible to replace those with alternatives that will allow salmon to use that habitat.

Despite all our efforts, the day may come when saving the salmon will depend on ending all commercial harvesting. It’s a possibility Sointula B.C. fisher Calvin Cedar doesn’t deny. He thinks young people might be able to make that transition with retraining. But, he wonders about what will happen to folks like him.

“I don’t know what they’d do with an old guy like me to tell you the truth. I don’t want just a government cheque. I want to be a worker and taxpayer, and that’s what we’ve been our whole lives. What’ll be left for us if that goes?

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