Anglers squabble over halibut allocation

Recreational and commercial fisherman restrained themselves from gaffing each other Wednesday night during a meeting on halibut catch allocation.

Recreational and commercial fisherman restrained themselves from gaffing each other Wednesday night during a meeting on halibut catch allocation.

“The fight isn’t against you and me, it’s divide and conquer by Fisheries and Oceans Canada!” said Tim Hobbs. “I am Canadian and I don’t like being divided.”

The standing-room only meeting at the Maritime

Heritage Centre was sponsored by the newly formed BC Sport Fishing Coalition. They are holding “town hall” meetings in coastal communities in an effort to form a federal lobby group.

“We’re trying to establish the value of the recreational fishery,” said Paul Rickard of Duncan, a member of the coalition’s steering committee. “We have no quarrel with the commercial fishery.”

But some commercial fishermen in the audience disagreed and are vehemently opposed to giving up any of their halibut allocation.

“You’re talking about taking a living away from a thousand families,” said Lyle Pearce, a Comox-based commercial fisherman. “You’re taking this away from working people!”

The great divide in this debate is the 88- to 12-per cent catch ratio split respectively split between commercial interests and recreational anglers which includes guides and fishing resorts.

The recreation sector wants more, at least 20 per cent, but commercial fishermen and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) aren’t budging from the ratio “agreement” reached seven years ago.

And the bad news for the recreational sector is the total allowable catch – as set out by DFO – is likely decreasing this year which means another shortened season for anglers.

To make matters even worse, recreational fishermen caught 112,000 pounds more last season than they should have, and that total will be deducted from this year’s weight limit.

“It’s really important this policy gets changed,” said local guide Jeremy Maynard, who writes about fishing issues and has served on various fishing-related committees.

The recreational halibut fishery typically runs from Feb. 1 to Dec. 30. Last year it was closed Oct. 18, after anglers had over-reached their catch limit. So far, DFO has made no announcements about this year’s catch limit and that’s a big concern for guides and resorts.

Martin Paish of Oak Bay Marine Group – which owns Painter’s Lodge in Campbell River and April Point Lodge on Quadra Island – said there’s a “tipping point” of when anglers book vacations and when they do not.

If anglers are allowed to catch just one halibut a day and be in possession of two fish, they don’t come. That means fewer bookings for campgrounds, resorts and guides. The coalition is suggesting catch and possession limits of two and two respectively.

Paish also said anglers don’t want to take fish away from the working commercial fishermen. Rather, the coalition wants to get rid of “slipper skippers,” former commercial fishermen who possess licences and lease them out to working fishermen.

“Out of the 435 people with licences, only 136 actually go out and fish. the rest sit at home and collect very nice lease payments, and enjoy the bounty,” said Rickard. “(Licences) are treated like private property…this coming season will probably be a disaster for all of us.”

Last year, commercial fishermen paid about $5 a pound to lease licences from the “slipper skippers.” The commercial fishermen argue that if the recreational anglers want more, they can buy more quota just as they do.

But the coalition says the 88-12 ratio is unfair on what is a public resource and want to renegotiate the agreement. And the only way to do that is by pressuring elected MPs, because DFO bureaucrats don’t listen or offer any solutions.

Rickard noted that Conservative MP James Lunney, representative for Alberni-Nanaimo, was at the coalition’s previous meeting in Nanaimo and appeared very supportive of the recreational needs.

But Vancouver Island North MP John Duncan was repeatedly criticized for doing nothing and “not being a friend” of recreational anglers.

“He has not responded in any way, shape or form,” charged Maynard.

However, on Thursday morning, Duncan did release a rare statement in response to his critics.

“Concerned anglers want to ensure that they maintain their access to a public resource,” he said in a written statement, sent out by his Ottawa support staff. “As a recreational fisher, this is a position that I strongly support.”

But Duncan pointed out the number of guides and resorts is growing, and this puts additional pressure on the halibut allocation. As well, halibut numbers aren’t as plentiful as they used to be.

“We are currently in a cyclical decline in halibut abundance on the West Coast, to the point that the current total allowable catch is about half of what it was four years ago,” Duncan said. “This obviously puts pressure on all users of the resource as they try to maintain their livelihoods and recreational pursuits in the face of decreasing catch. In response to this, it is understandable that people are focusing on who gets access to the fish.”

Duncan added that government’s main concern is “sustainability of the resource.”