Meeting Season

With the arrival of December the winter fishing season can truly be said to have started. The focus by those who like to continue their favourite recreation will shift to chasing feeder chinook or soaking traps for prawns when the weather allows for safe boating along the coast, in rivers for steelhead or on lakes for cutthroat trout. But more than ever at this time of year for some anglers involved in the Sport Fishing Advisory Board (SFAB) process that I described in the previous column there’s another season now well underway, what in my own mind I refer to as meeting season.

I should state before going any further that there are always some meetings occurring outside the late fall to early summer period, particularly for shellfish which don’t have the same seasonal dynamic as most finfish fisheries, but generally the majority of dialogue between DFO and user groups takes place outside the summer period. In the early 21st century there never seems to be any shortage of issues that need addressing and which once again is the case this meeting season, thus I thought it might be of value to briefly outline (in no particular order of priority) the “big ticket” items on the agenda now. Bear in mind that one of them, tidal waters license fee renewal, was described in the previous column.

One of the most important and vexing issues currently under discussion is referred to as “fish transport”, by which term is meant the transportation of one persons fish by another. This is a widespread practice covering everything from one angler transporting fish caught by family or friends while out together to relatively large loads of fish being transported from remote lodges by air or sea. These fish are all caught quite legally within the regulations governing the various recreational fisheries (bag and possession limits, size and seasons etc.) but strictly speaking the transport of fish by a third-party is illegal.

For many years third-party transport was sanctioned by the use of an informal letter system wherein the angler stated name, address, license number and details of the fish being moved. However due to persistent abuse by a few individuals, along with the associated pressure on guides in some locations to “gift” fish, usually halibut, in 2014 DFO sought legal advice on this issue from the Department of Justice. To no great surprise lawyers in Ottawa with little understanding of the Pacific regional recreational fishery advised that the informal letter system was illegal and use of such a scheme must cease immediately meaning that regional staff have no choice but to enforce the regulation, turning every otherwise law abiding angler and those in some businesses that service the fishery into potential criminals.

I won’t go further into this issue now other than to say it has to be resolved and soon. To be fair DFO recognizes the challenge this puts to both the fishery and its enforcement staff and has hired a consultant to work with all parties to try and bring about a resolution that meets the needs of law abiding anglers and their service providers yet has some standing in law that is workable for those tasked with enforcing the new regulation. The devil is in the details and much thought and discussion has and is taking place on this issue – just consider the difference between “possession” and “custody” to get a flavor of the debate. More to come on this issue for sure.

In response to persistent low returns of some chinook stocks to the Fraser River and consequent friction between different fishing communities and gear-types that encounter these fish last summer DFO announced that it would be initiating a review of the management of Fraser River chinook salmon. This straightforward descriptive phrase actually covers scores of individual river stocks exhibiting a diverse array of fresh and saltwater life history and run-timing characteristics, meaning this is no simple topic. Suffice it to say that given the BC coast wide distribution of Fraser origin chinooks the outcomes of the review could have implications for anglers across the region. Currently DFO has been seeking advice on the terms of reference for the review, which the SFAB has provided on behalf of the recreational fishery, with the review itself expected to commence in early 2017.

If there was one fish stock on the BC coast more than any other for which it would be possible to roll back the clock and revisit the key management decisions it would have to be rockfish – my opinion anyway. Because of their key characteristics – long life, late maturity and low reproductive rate, non-migratory nature and susceptibility to barotrauma – all leading to the phrase that “a caught rockfish is a dead rockfish”, the management of this family of some three dozen individual species over the past forty odd years is enough to make me really believe in the stupidity of man. Management of inner coast rockfish was fundamentally changed for the better about fifteen years ago and some changes took place on the outer coast at that time, however problems still persist.

Yelloweye rockfish a.k.a. “red snapper” are potentially the longest lived and largest of the rockfish species and were listed as of Special Concern under the federal Species At Risk Act (SARA) in 2011. With this legal classification DFO is slowly working through measures to reduce the annual mortality (landed catch plus release) by all fisheries that encounter them. With the inside stock management settled for the foreseeable future attention has switched to the outside yelloweye stock, which is to say everywhere on the BC coast outside the Johnstone Strait/Strait of Georgia/eastern Juan de Fuca Strait area.

Simply put the aggregate all-fishery impact on outside yelloweye rockfish is thought to be about 300 tons annually in recent years, which DFO is endeavoring to reduce to less than 100 tons to ensure the sustainability of the species. The recreational share is currently thought to be 50 tons per year and given that many yelloweye are encountered incidentally to fishing for halibut and lingcod the challenge in getting our catch to about 15 tons will be considerable. With the legal provisions under SARA requiring action and the green NGO’s leaning hard on DFO to do just that management changes are coming and fast, with all this applying to commercial groundfish fisheries on the same scale writ large.

The Pacific Salmon Treaty between Canada and the US is up for renewal by the end of 2018, with the exception of the Fraser sockeye and pink salmon chapter that is delayed one year. This means that negotiations are already underway and will only pick up in in frequency and intensity as the months pass in the year to come. With the recent change in the US federal government it will be interesting to see what the implications of an “America First” official mindset will have for Canadian salmon stocks. Ditto inter-country negotiations over harvest shares at the annual Pacific Halibut Commission meeting in January.

Add to the topics listed here all the usual salmon planning meetings, the never ending quest for more balanced management of prawn and crab fisheries to enable meaningful recreational access for non-commercial fishing Canadians and other ongoing issues and you can see that meeting season will be a busy one in the months ahead. Maintaining recreational opportunity is a never ending task and something not to be taken for granted!