'Too many boats chasing too few fish': Support, concern in B.C. salmon industry over DFO licence buyback plan

Paul Chauvel guts a sockeye fish as his vessel motors into Steveston Harbour in Richmond, B.C. It was the first time Paul, who works for his father's company Organic Ocean, had been fishing for salmon since 2018.  (Andrew Lee/CBC - image credit)
Paul Chauvel guts a sockeye fish as his vessel motors into Steveston Harbour in Richmond, B.C. It was the first time Paul, who works for his father's company Organic Ocean, had been fishing for salmon since 2018. (Andrew Lee/CBC - image credit)

Dane Chauvel is adrift in the mouth of the Fraser River looking for sockeye salmon.

It's Sept. 8, and he's glad to be working on one of B.C.'s best known fisheries on Day 1 of its first opening to commercial fishing in three years.

It's a business that three generations of Chauvel's family have worked in, and with him on this day is his son Paul, who also works for his seafood company Organic Ocean.

But with compounding challenges facing salmon, like climate change and habitat loss, it's a business Chauvel no longer thinks is viable in its current form.

"Too many boats chasing too few fish," he said.

That dilemma is central to the federal government's Pacific salmon commercial licence retirement program, which, when launched later this year, will pay fishers to hand back their licences and walk away from the industry.

It's a move the government says will help take pressure off salmon stocks, and a strategy similar to buybacks in Atlantic Canada, where the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) put forward a voluntary licence buyback program to limit commercial access to lobster fisheries.

Andrew Lee/CBC
Andrew Lee/CBC

The B.C. plan is part of the DFO's Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative, a $647-million program launched in June 2021 to "stem the steep decline of many Pacific salmon populations," according to its website.

But it's been the focus of fierce criticism from some unionized fishers, who say the department is "playing with their lives" because of the plan's current vagueness.

Saving Pacific salmon

Pacific salmon is a family of fish that includes species of sockeye, chinook, coho, pink and chum salmon. Research up and down B.C.'s coast shows sockeye, chinook and some coho species are in stages of decline in various watersheds, according to the 2019 report State of Canadian Pacific Salmon.

Scientists have pointed to a number of reasons for the dropping numbers but a warming climate and habitat change are significant factors.

Salmon numbers directly affect whether commercial fisheries will open in a given year due to a tiered system that determines the order of who can catch the fish.

A certain number of fish, known as the escapement, are first allowed to proceed unhindered to the spawning grounds. Next, Indigenous harvesters catch what is needed for themselves or their community in a fishing period called the food, social and ceremonial harvest.

After those two stages, commercial fishers may get a chance to fish, depending on the run size — the number of fish expected to return to a watershed.

Georgie Smyth/CBC
Georgie Smyth/CBC

When the numbers of returning salmon are lower than was expected, as often happens on the Fraser River, the likelihood of a commercial fishery is low.

The forecast for the 2022 run of Fraser River sockeye salmon was first thought to be 9.7 million. It was downgraded to 6.7 million in mid-September by the Pacific Salmon Commission.

However, salmon returns to other rivers in B.C., like the Skeena, were better than forecast this year.

Nevertheless, dropping salmon returns to watersheds across B.C. and Yukon are devastating to conservation efforts and Indigenous communities who rely on salmon for food and connection to culture.

For commercial ventures, the uncertainty of whether a fishery will even go ahead makes it expensive to operate, said Chauvel, whose Richmond, B.C.-based company has its own boats and works with the B.C. fishing fleet to deliver seafood direct to consumers as far away as Ontario.

Chauvel, who has owned his commercial salmon licence since 1987, said reducing the number of licences and boats could restore viability to the fishing industry.

"The industry is crying for rationalization and the way that we're going to achieve it is by taking out some of the fishing capacity, and the way we're doing that is through a government-funded buyback," he said — but adding that he won't be selling his licence when the program starts.

Andrew Lee/CBC
Andrew Lee/CBC

Price of a livelihood 

However, others say the buyback will disrupt the lives of many who work in the industry.

The lack of information about the program is itself causing anxiety, says James Lawson of the Heiltsuk Nation, who represents hundreds of commercial fishers from across B.C. as president of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union.

Lawson is also worried the program will overlook fishers who own boats or work as crew but don't have a licence in their name.

"A lot of these people have the added financial burden of owning vessels and gear of which there has also been no discussion of compensation — so you're stuck with the hardware but not the paperwork," he said.

Lawson says he might sell his own commercial licence back to the government depending on what he's offered, but he's not hopeful fishers will be given a fair price to walk away from their livelihoods.

"The best buyback for them is the one that's going to be cheapest," he said.

CBC News/ Andrew Lee
CBC News/ Andrew Lee

DFO did not confirm to CBC News when more details about the program will be made public, other than to say "licence holders will be given an opportunity to relinquish their licences this year" and that fishermen would be paid a "fair market value."

The impact the program will have on harvesters is not lost on the minister of fisheries, a DFO spokesperson acknowledged in a statement.

The statement also said the department will offer supports to dispose of vessels and fishing gear, though it is not clear if that offer extends to boat owners who do not have a licence in their name.