The SFAB and license fees

I don’t honestly know how many anglers give any thought as to how the regulations that govern their fishery come about. It’s likely that that some do, and more do so when a highly unpopular regulation is implemented or it is understood DFO is preparing to do so. Sometimes this leads to protests that catch the eye of media and for a few days or weeks there’s some exposure to the issue before the next murder in the lower mainland or serial abuse somewhere reclaims the priority of the press.

Examples of “street action” by anglers that come to mind are when in the mid-1980’s DFO lowered the annual limit for chinook retention in the Strait of Georgia to 8 fish (yes, really!) or, more recently, in the Victoria area over plans to virtually eliminate meaningful chinook retention opportunity in Juan de Fuca Strait during the important spring into mid-summer period. But these instances aside anglers are generally a pretty well-behaved lot, with regulation change and all the issue driven discussion that surrounds them taking place out of sight, somewhere. Just where and how is something that I’m thinking that most anglers couldn’t answer – in the most generous interpretation of the word, ignorance is bliss; just let me go fishing when I get the chance.

If only it were that easy and it should come as no surprise to know that in the early 21st century there are many competing claims for a finite number of fish, too many stocks of which are in less than robust health for a variety of reasons, most of which are not caused by fishing pressure per se but result in the desire by government to lower yet further the impact of fisheries on the particular species or stock of concern.

The marine recreational fishery for all species and salmon fishing in freshwater is managed by the federal government via Fisheries and Oceans Canada, otherwise universally referred to by the acronym DFO. Not unexpectedly the government sends out mixed messages about the recreational fishery in the Pacific region. On the one hand its tourism agencies trumpet the great opportunities and strong social benefits and, in less colorful language as befits the topic, professes to acknowledge and understand the disproportionately large economic benefits of a fishery which harvests a relatively small share of the overall catch. Regrettably, and regardless of which party is in power, Ottawa doesn’t provide DFO with near enough resources to manage the fishery as it should be, often times resulting in decisions that take a simplistic approach diminishing the otherwise positive outcomes of the fishery noted previously.

Fortunately more than 50 years ago DFO created an advisory and consultation process known as the Sport Fishing Advisory Board (SFAB). Despite the temptation by some in government to eliminate or at least compromise its functions the SFAB has somehow endured and evolved to become a truly representative “from the grass roots up” organization, said to be the longest standing advisory board to the minister of fisheries and oceans from any fishery anywhere in Canada.

And it is through the three-tiered SFAB process that the issue driven discussions take place, with both government and fishery representatives introducing initiatives. Ultimately of course it is the government that takes the final decisions, with the SFAB hoping only to influence the outcomes in a way that supports the well being of the fishery but is respectful of the needs of the particular fin or shellfish resource – conservation is always first. More information about the structure and activities of the SFAB can be found at:

One thing about the SFAB that hasn’t changed since its inception is that non-government participants are all volunteers and for many regular participants doing so takes on a life of its own, all in a good cause of course. Historically DFO has paid the costs of enabling this vital process but especially over the past decade budgets have been steadily eroded to the point of crippling the process. Just recently notice was given that one of the customary semi-annual sub-regional meetings (fall South Coast SFAB) would not occur because of insufficient funds, with the implication that the following spring the North Coast SFAB meeting would not take place either. It was only through the pointed intervention of a Liberal MP from the south coast that funding has been found for the meeting to proceed, but almost certainly some other program will be the poorer now. With no new funding it’s almost certainly a case of “rob Peter to pay Paul”.

The truly exasperating thing about this is that the SFAB, supported unanimously throughout the process, has proposed a way out of this fix and much more besides – increase the tidal waters license fee. The license fee structure has remained unchanged since 1995 and as a result is one of the all-time great bargains, however the status quo is unsustainable if the regional recreational fishery is to be managed in away that enables its full potential.

The situation is utterly perverse in that a user group, in this case the recreational fishery, has stated categorically that it will support a fee increase on its activity but government for a variety of reasons is either unwilling or unable to do so. For electoral optics the previous Conservative government didn’t want to be seen as imposing an increase and the Treasury Board doesn’t want to be seen as giving in to a user group – all federal government revenue must flow to its coffers and it alone will decide what will be returned to the regions.

Because the SFAB recommendation for a substantial license fee increase comes with two conditions. The first is that all the additional revenue from any increase be returned to the Pacific region to be used in ways that benefit the recreational fishery and the fish resources upon which it depends. Secondly, the SFAB wants be consulted on what the new license price structure in each time category would be, because there are real concerns about the potential for decreased participation – a price barrier – if fees are set too high, something that would negate the reasons for advancing the increase in the first place. As well, consideration should be given to new features such as individual stamps for shellfish or groundfish harvesting to complement the existing salmon stamp.

Unless Minister Leblanc moves fast the fees are likely to remain unchanged for the 2017/18-license year. While some may view this as a good thing the reality for the future of recreational fishery management is quite the opposite and I for one hope that opposition within government can be overcome to make the change that is so badly needed.