BC Salmon Catch Increasingly Controlled by Few Corporations
But try and learn how they 'stack' quotas to cut jobs and up profit, and DFO says it's secret.
The answer I received, in so many words, was: none of your business.
"...There are very strict confidentiality rules that DFO must adhere to, and therefore we cannot release the names of vessels and their associated quota."
This was the reply that I got from Beth Pechter of the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans after six months of requesting the number of quotas transferred amongst the 130 or so vessels that were eligible to take part in the spectacular 2010 return of sockeye salmon through Johnstone Straits.
I had originally requested the information for a number of articles that I was writing on the management of that fishery. In the articles, I had hoped to explain the privatization and corporate concentration that has occurred in the British Columbia commercial fishing fleet in recent years.
Naturally, then, I wanted to know who the federal government allows to catch fish and how the distribution of that privilege might be changing. Such information would seem to be not just my business but a legitimate concern for any British Columbian whose livelihood or identity is tied to commercial fishing off our coast.
But as I say, the DFO slammed the door in my face.
My question for federal managers of our fishery stemmed from the research for my 2010 book, Still Fishin'. In talking with leading B.C. fishermen for that book, I repeatedly heard the lament that the price of the fishing privilege in B.C. has been driven up and out of the reach of legitimate fishermen by the non-fishing investors.
Power concentrated into few hands
The management of a salmon fishery is a complex bit of guesswork. Last summer, as estimates of the returning Fraser River sockeye grew toward the 30 million mark, DFO was faced with some serious management issues. The purse seine boats licensed to fish the runs have huge catching power. Even with the large returns, it would be possible to catch too many fish. This would leave a shortage for the in-river native fisheries and the spawning grounds. If the fishery was conducted in an Olympic style opening of three or four days per week, there could be a glut of fish delivered to the much-reduced processing facilities.
The decision was made, wisely according to most observers, to spread the fishery out with a quota system. The estimated total allowable catch for the week was divided by the number of boats licensed to fish, and each boat was then allowed to catch that much fish. So far, so good; if bona fide fishermen owned the boats, the bounty would be spread evenly amongst the boats, their respective crews and homeports.
However, unlike Alaska, where the license to catch fish is held by a fisherman who must be onboard the boat when it is fishing, Canada has respected the capital investment in the boat over the rights of the citizen to make a living.
In Canada, fishermen do not necessarily own the boats, the licenses to fish them, nor the assigned quota. In fact, the majority of seine boats are owned by investor processors, most of who have never earned a dollar on the deck of a fishing boat. While this is a sad state of affairs for coastal fishing communities, since it concentrates power in two or three Vancouver-based companies, there was still worse to come. The DFO allowed the owners of boats and their quotas to "stack" or combine the quotas of any number of boats onto a single vessel.
For each stacked quota, five crewmembers are left on the beach and a boat is left tied to the dock.
The result, theoretically down the line, could be a relatively small number of vessels with crews who are simply wage-earning employees. Once proud and independent fishermen would be reduced to the equivalent of grocery store clerks working in a vertically integrated food corporation. Our coastal fishing culture would be further decimated, and we would lose the valuable eyes on the water that the fleet of independent commercial fishermen now provide. A few corporate owned boats catching all of the fish may be great economics, but it is lousy environmental protection.
Why quotas are crucial
The specific question I had asked DFO, therefore, was: How many quotas were stacked during the harvesting of 2010 return of sockeye salmon through Johnstone Straits?
And even though the feds refused to tell me, I found another way to get a general, and disturbing, picture. I spoke with dockside accountants and fishermen. According to these "reliable sources," the province's largest fishing company, owned by a billionaire investor, not only stacked quota but changed the long established system for sharing the catch amongst the crew and vessel owner. According to fishermen, here is how it was done.
The large corporation is reported to have stacked up to three licenses and their quota on a single boat. Only 60 per cent of the landed fish went into the established share system that apportions shares for the boat owner and crew. While this was more than the crew would have made with a single license, it allowed the investor-owner of the license to receive 40 per cent of the catch virtually for free.
One way of calculating this, based on $5 per fish and three stacked vessel quota of 35,000 fish each would generate a total of $525,000 if they caught all of their quota. Of this amount, $315,000 (60 per cent) would be divided under the traditional system to give the crew 7/11ths and the owner 5/11ths to divide after expenses. The quota owner would receive an additional $210,000 on the 40 per cent for which he doesn't pay the crew anything.
At the same time, stacking three quotas on a single boat left ten crew members without any fishing opportunity. While much of this is speculation, the lack of transparency by DFO around the distribution of this public fishery resource precludes more precise numbers.
BC's fish are a public resource
DFO has changed its responses while consistently refusing to share quota stacking information. At first I was told that the quotas were shifted from boat to boat on a daily basis. When I asked for a snap shot of one or two days I was told, again by Beth Pechter, "Picking certain dates in time to report vessels and the percentage of quota on each vessel effective that day is neither possible nor particularly useful to better understand the fishery; I cannot conceive how that might help your readers better understand the fishery."
Given the above financial scenario, this information is all-important to assess the economic winners and losers. Many nations, in their fisheries management, are striving for ways that their citizens and coastal communities can benefit from a fishery. Interestingly, DFO is willing to hide behind the bona fide fishermen when it suits them. Even though the majority of quotas are held by corporations, the government managers are quick to reference the "fishers" as in the following quote, again from Ms. Pechter.
"DFO policy is to not release any confidential fisher's data; this includes, but is not limited to, vessel specific catch (which you requested) and vessel specific quota allocations once quota transfers have taken place (which you also requested). Further, I did speak with members of both the Area B Seine and the Area H Troll harvest committees and they were most emphatically in favour of this policy; they were clear that information DFO may have pertaining to their business decisions should not be made public (by DFO)."
I know, and have known for over 60 years, that the fish of British Columbia are a public resource. I know that the public is responsible for maintaining the health of the rivers and the seas on which they rely. I understand that we have assigned our civil service to manage this resource on our behalf. I accept that "fishers'" financial information should remain confidential between them and the taxman. I see no reason why even DFO should have such information. But quota assigned to a vessel is not necessarily caught. It remains in the sea, and it is the public's right and responsibility to know that. According to fishermen with whom I have talked, even knowing the quota caught by a vessel does not tell me what was paid for it or how those funds were divided.
In spite or repeated request for copy of the "confidentiality rules" referred to above, DFO has yet to make it available. If we are to maintain a healthy fishery on our coast, it is time for our civil servants to begin serving us in a civil fashion. If fish are to be caught, then each citizen must have the information to determine who should benefit when that fish is killed.