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Why successful salmon season spells trouble for BC fishermen

*This story was updated at 5 p.m. on Monday, July 29.

Commercial salmon fishermen in Prince Rupert spent three days tied to the dock last week, forgoing fishery openings, in protest of a drop in salmon prices.

The protest ended July 27 and boats have since begun fishing again. Negotiations ended over the weekend with fishermen getting 28 cents per pound for their seasonal pink fishery catch.

The operators of approximately 35 boats fishing for Canadian Fishing Company (Canfisco) had been protesting a company cut to pink prices since July 25.

The protest was planned after fishermen were informed July 22 that they would be dealt a seven cent price cut per pound on the pink salmon they harvest for Canfisco fishing company.

Canfisco vice president, Rob Morley called the protest a "minor local issue," but fishermen say the price drop undermines their livelihood.

"The fishermen are pissed!" said seine boat skipper Darrell Enger. "They [Canfisco] just dropped the price without any warning.

"Guys aren't very happy, obviously."

The B.C. northern region commercial salmon fishermen had been getting 32 cents per pound for their pink salmon catch but the price plummeted to 25 cents last week.

Talks held late in the week between Canfisco and a negotiation committee, made up of a handful of fishermen, ended with Canfisco agreeing to give a two cent increase but fishermen weren't biting the offer and late Friday dozens of boats remained tied to the dock.

"We did say, and have said, that we are prepared to pay 27 cents [per pound]. The fisherman asked for a few cents more than our initial 25 cent posted price and reluctantly the company gave it on their assurance it would be sufficient for them to go back fishing," said Morley. "Yet despite the increase some fisherman think that's not good enough," he said. "There's nothing else. Period."

But Canfisco did increase the rate by another cent and on July 29 fishing commenced.

"They took the 28 cents," confirmed Joy Thorkelson, of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers' Union [UFAWU]. "Their action bought the three cents more," she said.

But Thorkelson says the tone amongst Prince Rupert fishermen remains sour.

"I think they're bitter that they're getting much less than the Alaskan fishermen and they're disappointed that the company can't see their way and keeping the rate at 32 cents," Thorkelson said.

Last week Canfisco said the reason behind the price drop was due to a large pink salmon season. The company has already landed its full season budget for the north and south coasts combined in the first three weeks. The company has also already filled up all of the specialty product canned pink salmon orders and is now filling the standard commodity half pound and one pound cans, said Morley.

"We've seen more fish than we have in years," he added.

Morley said the drop in prices is also reflective of a competitive salmon market in Alaska and higher processing costs in B.C. At 39 cents per pound for pink salmon, Morley admits that American fishermen working for Canfisco are being paid higher wages than their Canadian counterparts. He said a competitive U.S. salmon market and discrepancy in processing costs are to blame. "The fishermen are getting paid more [in Alaska] but the cost of operations is lower there than they are in B.C.," said Morley.

Also, shore workers in B.C.'s salmon processing plants receive approximately $18 per hour compared to the $7 wage workers in Alaskan plants get, noted Morley.

"We can't afford to pay what the [B.C.] fishermen want," Morley said. "We can only pay them what the market reflects."

But is it fair to lower the price of fishermen's catch because of a tight U.S. market or to balance the higher cost of processing the product in here? "Whether it's fair or not that's the economy of business," Morley said. "I don't think what we're doing to them is unfair. It's supply and demand. We can't afford to pay the prices we did before and we don't want to do that," he said.

"In Alaska, Canadian Fish [Canfisco] is not the price setter so therefore they must be competitive in their wage offer," explained Thorkelson, adding that she knew the wage for Alaskan fisherman to be as high as 42 cents per pound.

Canfisco, owned by Vancouver business tycoon Jim Pattison, has two affiliated companies in Alaska. But in B.C. the company dominates the fishing industry, operating the largest fleet of fishing vessels in the province and running major processing facilities in Prince Rupert and Vancouver.

"Canadian Fish certainly has the monopoly in B.C.," said Thorkelson. As far as fishing companies go, "it's the price setter." And now "fishermen are saying that the price of fish is far less than they can make a living off of and they are not willing to risk their lives to go out and catch millions of pounds of salmon and at the end of it show next to nothing in profit," added Thorkelson.

According to Morley, B.C. fishermen's earnings had increased this season with the combination of prices being offered and volumes being caught. However, fishermen remain disappointed with flip-flopping salmon prices.

"I think the insult is that the fisherman thought they had a firm 32 cent price," said Thorkelson.

"Fishermen aren't greedy," added Enger. "We're not asking for an increase. We're just asking for the price we've already been paid or very close to it."

Fishermen of privately owned boats and those working for smaller fishing companies had also stood alongside the Canfisco boats in protest, concerned that other companies might follow suit and drop salmon prices like Canfiso has.

"It's really great to see guys unite and stand against this," said Enger. "It's not a union issue, it's not a Native Brotherhood issue, it's a fisherman issue," he said. "And everyone is standing together."

Shauna Lewis is a journalist based in Vancouver.

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