For Canadians, one of the world’s leading consumers of salmon, this year’s British Columbia harvest of the fish has produced a series of disappointments. Pollution is slowly destroying 2,000 spawning streams, stocks of two of B.C.’s five salmon subspecies are in decline, the federal fisheries conservation program is in disarray, catches are down, retail prices are up and the province’s highly efficient fishing fleet is sinking into bankruptcy. In a 22-chapter report on the industry, entitled Turning The Tide, B.C. economist Peter Pearse concluded that salmon stocks were well below desirable levels. The reason: overfishing. Pearse’s final recommendations included repealing the outdated Fisheries Act, placing salmon research on a more scientific basis and removing half of the province’s 4,700 salmon boats from the industry.
Though most agree that the salmon fleet must be cut, outrage over Pearse’s report has not subsided. The fractious fishing industry met through a minister’s advisory council, quickly recommending to federal Fisheries Minister Pierre De Bañé that a one-year moratorium be placed on Pearse’s recommendations. Accepting the council’s request, the fisheries department instead authorized a $44-million grant to British Columbia’s Salmonid Enhancement Program (29 hatchery facilities that now account for 10 per cent of the salmon catch), had the tax returns of 775 fishermen audited and, in a move announced at a Vancouver press conference last week, agreed to a $9.8-million
bailout purchase of a B.C. Packers harbor facility.
Those moves, however, have only made more waves in already troubled waters. In recent weeks angry fishermen have seized two north coast fisheries offices, and two weeks ago, in a protest against drastically lowered wholesale fish prices, the 7,000-member UFAWU staged a 36-hour walkout. Though a long strike now appears averted, fish prices, which have been falling since 1979, tumbled further this year, driving the price of Coho salmon down to 66 cents a pound from the 1982 price of 75 cents. Yet, in a precedentsetting decision, the UFAWU accepted lower prices, as have the majority of independent fishermen who comprise the fleet. Said Dal Triggs, a 68-yearold gill-netter: “It’s more or less a catastrophe.”
Despite the fewer numbers of salmon, everyone involved in the industry seems determined to catch the last one. And who is allowed to catch what has been the subject of heated disputes. British Columbia’s Indians claim the fish as an aboriginal right, while the fiercely independent trollers, seiners and gill-netters each claim that the other groups are taking too many fish. Illegal poaching is a widespread problem, and sports fishermen also demand their quotas. There is almost general agreement on one thing, however: that the federal fisheries department has been unable to stop the slide in the number of salmon. Still, while the debate rages on, one thing is clear: the arguments are only a warning cry that could signal the end of one of Canada’s best-known and best loved food products.
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