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Surprising salmon run masks an industry in crisis

David Parkins for The Globe and Mail/david parkins The Globe and Mail

Federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea was visiting British Columbia this week at an auspicious time. Her department has long been maligned for its management of the West Coast salmon fishery, and she just happens to land in the middle of a sockeye run so rich, the fishermen can't lift their nets fast enough.

If there is still a crisis, it just got a lot harder to explain.

Ms. Shea, faced with conflicting signals and bombarded with contradictory advice, might be tempted to turn to her own Department of Fisheries and Oceans for an explanation.

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But the DFO is hardly riding a crest of confidence these days.

The department doesn't understand the fishery it is managing John Cummins, Conservative MP for Delta-Richmond East

Last year, relying on data from the Pacific Salmon Commission, it planned for a fishery based on a Fraser sockeye run of 11 million: Just one million fish returned. This year, the forecast of 11 million fish was wrong again, with the number now pegged at 25 million or more - the biggest run since 1913.

There is euphoria on the fishing grounds, but little relief.

"Everything is not fine," said Paul LeBlond, former head of the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of British Columbia. Yes, it is wonderful that the salmon are back this year, he said, but it underscores how little DFO knows about the fishery it is tasked to manage.

"Nobody knows why there were not enough fish last year and nobody knows why there are so many this year," he said. "There isn't enough scientific information available." How do you manage for the future if you don't have a clue what forces are at work?

There are many competing interests in the fishery, but there seems to be one point of consensus among them: DFO's handling of B.C.'s wild salmon has contributed to the decline.

The four-year cycle of the salmon runs has always dictated the rhythms of the industry. But the extreme boom-and-bust in this last cycle has left the infrastructure rusty from disuse, as this week's commercial fishery opening demonstrated. It will take more than one good year to repair.

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John Cummins, Conservative MP for Delta-Richmond East, has been a commercial fisherman for four decades. He recalled the last time the sockeye were returning in strength, in 1993. "Fishermen were phoning me from Sointula, Port McNeill, saying, 'Our sounders are black with fish - why can't we fish?' A couple of weeks later these fish hit the river and it was pandemonium."

Before he went racing for his boat this week, Mr. Cummins spoke with Ms. Shea about how he thinks her department could do better this time around.

"The department doesn't understand the fishery it is managing," he said. This year's run shows the sockeye can bounce back, but the decisions made now about the harvest will have repercussions for years to come.

Ms. Shea is being bombarded with conflicting advice about how many of these salmon should be harvested. Mr. Cummins and others urge her to open up the fishery or risk weakening the salmon stocks by overcrowding.

There are just as many voices cautioning her to hold back and let the stocks recover.

That is the position held by Ernie Crey, a tireless advocate for the Sto:Lo aboriginal fishery. Mr. Crey sees a future where this year might be regarded as a small run, a time when there will be plenty for everyone to share. "We could be producing 35, 40 million on the Fraser on some cycles," he said, if Ottawa was willing to invest in things like research, habitat protection and salmon enhancement. But the industry is a pale shadow of its former self, making it difficult to justify the spending.

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Ms. Shea is likely to get little sense from her visit about what the wild salmon fishery once meant to this coast. It wasn't so many years ago that the salmon fishery was a powerful economic force, when the United Fishermen and Allied Workers' Union could go on strike and British Columbians paid attention.

Dennis Brown was an executive with the UFAWU in those heady times. He got his first taste of commercial fishing on his dad's boat in 1954. His father, Alan Brown, built his own gillnet trawler, the Seadeuce, in their backyard and fished until his retirement.

Fishermen like the Browns were ecologists before the name Greenpeace was coined, but were blamed for their own misfortune as the industry was brought to its knees in the past two decades.

Alan Brown died this week just as news of the astronomical sockeye returns were filtering down the coast. He was seized with the story, Dennis Brown said, and believed the survival of the salmon runs that once sustained tens of thousands of B.C. families was worth fighting for.

"Because of the mismanagement of DFO, we've upset the balance," the younger Mr. Brown said as he prepared for his father's memorial. "And it has ruined lives."

But if this year's sockeye run demonstrates one thing, it is that there is hope yet for a future where B.C.'s salmon runs are once again a mighty force, both in nature and in the economy.

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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