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Excerpt from High Boats

Five thousand years ago a Native fisherman and his woman paddled out into the tide and trolled for the salmon that would keep them from starving in the coming winter. Their canoe, their paddles, their lines and hooks and sinkers had been made by themselves and the people of their village.

Fifty years ago the boats and nets that caught fish cost 40-60 thousand dollars. Their owners needed a knowledge of bookkeeping, contracts and insurance, as much mechanical and electronic skill as they could muster, a grasp of any number of fishing regulations, a personnel manager's ability to attract good employees and keep them - and lastly the ability to catch fish.

And the fish, by then, were being hammered from all sides. Logging, hydroelectric projects, and industrial pollution on one side; drum seining, sophisticated electronics and more, bigger and faster boats on the other.

Regulating this industry had become increasingly complex. "The local fisheries officers are good people," said Ian Todd, a former DFO biologist, "But they have so much heat put on them. Their job has gotten so complex. The jurisdictions are split. They're trying to deal with municipal, regional and provincial districts and a whole lot of different agencies."

To make things even more difficult there seems to be no coherent direction from the top. The "class of '49", those ex-servicemen who had joined the DFO after World War II, had worked their way up the organizational ladder and knew "everything and everybody" had retired.

They were replaced by what Don Pepper, an economist who worked for the Federal Fisheries for some time, describes as "a huge bureaucracy whose leaders are never seen because, like Gilbert and Sullivan's Duke of Plaza-Toro, they are leading from behind. Today's fishermen are fighting shadows."

Mike Weigold, judged by his peers to be a matchless fisherman, was one of those fighting shadows. The long-standing problem of the pinks was an example. For years the DFO had divided Johnstone Strait into blocks which opened and closed in an effort to preserve the pinks. To the fishermen this was ridiculous because they knew, as the DFO apparently did not, that the pinks didn't frequent the Vancouver side of the strait. The Alert Bay fishermen decided, among themselves, that the answer was a "ribbon boundary" for upper Johnstone Strait; a boundary that ran, not across the strait, but up and down its length.

Their attempts to negotiate this change with the DFO were futile so the fishermen put the regulation in place themselves. A group in Alert Bay talked it up on the radio, explained what they were trying to do and effectively closed the mainland area to fishing. The whole fleet stayed out of that side of the strait. A group of fishermen ("the troops") had identified a problem, found a solution and then enforced that solution -- all on their own. David Rahn, editor of Western Fish and Seafood, said, "Years afterward the DFO brought it in as a regulation."

And then there was 1994 season. "In 1994 the fishing fleet caught 1.2 million fish in one day," Mike Weigold said, "We had become so efficient that we could catch a whole run and nobody to stop us -- nobody who understood what was happening."

This despite various costly and misguided efforts to "reform" the industry. In the 1980s Peter Pearse, a UBC economics professor, produced a report that recommended the fishing fleet be drastically reduced. He argued, furthermore, that salmon should not be common property at all but the property of those enterprises that could use the resource most effectively.

In 1996, Fred Mifflin, a former admiral, was Minister of Fisheries and Oceans. He announced the "Salmon Revitalization Plan" which aimed for a 50 per cent reduction in the capacity of the salmon fleet and introduced license limitation, with the result that licenses became of more value than the boats that owned them. This artificial manipulation of market forces resulted in confusion for the innocent, windfalls for the shrewd, and the bureaucratic tangle of appeal boards.
Meanwhile, in Alert Bay, a group of frustrated fishermen formed the Johnstone Strait Salmon Fishermen's Enhancement Society and decided to address a problem the academics and admirals had ignored - - preservation and enhancement of the stock. They set sail in a flotilla of nine seine boats with skiffs, power saws and a homemade planting device. For four years they cleared Charles Creek, ravaged by logging, and transplanted eggs from neighbouring Viner Creek. Not with the blessing of the DFO, it should be said. The DFO threatened to fire biologists who lent their expertise to this exercise. "People risked a lot being involved in that," said David Rahn.

In 1998 Mike Weigold left the fishing industry. "I had no faith in the DFO's ability to manage the industry," he said, "It was just a facade. It was all about political agendas."

And now with this new century we have a new controversy. As early as the 1970s Ian Todd heard his employers talking about allowing the import of Atlantic salmon eggs from Norway. "I couldn't believe what I was hearing," he said. "It was already known that things had gone very wrong in Norway; they had got to the point where they were using rotenone to kill everything in their streams to eradicate disease."

"There are all kinds of serious problems with aquaculture", said John Volpe, Assistant Professor, Fisheries and Invasion Biology, at the University of Alberta. "If you look for them you'll find them, but the DFO prefers to look the other way." Those problems include antibiotics which have created the "super bugs" now appearing in fish farms in Chile and Norway, pesticides which kill all crustaceans and the demand for fish food which is consuming the marine resources of countries like Chile and Peru.

What concerns him most, however, is the quality of the food produced. He cited Canadian and Scottish studies published in recent issues of the environmental science journal Chemosphere. They report that levels of PCB toxins are roughly 10 times higher in farm fish than in wild fish. They trace the source of the contamination back to commercial salmon feed.

He mentions a recent feature in the British Daily Mail which states that in Europe, "a chemical cocktail of substances found in trace amount in these (farm) fish include canthaxanthin, a dietary additive which gives farmed salmon its appealing colour and is linked to vision damage; various pesticides such as cypermethrin, dichlorvos, and azamethiphos associated with cancer and reproductive problems in humans; copper and zinc-based paints; and malachite green, a fungicide." The paper notes that the latter was banned in June 2002 by the Scottish government.

Perhaps, given our burgeoning world population's need for food, we must resign ourselves to the problems arising from concentrated food production. Feed lots, after, all aren't models of a pollution- free environment. Perhaps antibiotics, and pesticides and an enveloping tide of feces are the price we must pay for more food. "We've got dwindling wild fish and an increasing world population," said David Rahn, "so fish farming is not going to go away."
Don Millerd agrees. His company processes farm fish. He said, "This whole fish farming thing is part of a coastal transition. It's the transition from hunting and gathering to cultivating the seas and it won't be controversial 20 or 30 years from now."

If that is the case then the very least we can do is be vigilant. In 1995 the government of the day commissioned a group of scientists to produce a report called the Salmon Aquaculture Review. This is a direct quote from this report. "A comprehensive surveillance program is essential" and "standards must be rigorously enforced" because we haven't as yet sufficient scientific knowledge and "there is the possibility of a catastrophic event."

This is the industry that has recently been declared "self-regulating."