The Department of No?

I had intended to comment on the following in a more timely way but I got caught up in a long planned family reunion to parts of eastern Canada and between the travel, feasting and general merrymaking that occurred I found it mission impossible to focus on putting fingers to keyboard quickly. With regrets for the delay ….

In consideration of what seemed to be a different mindset exhibited by the current federal Liberal government towards environmental protection in general and sustaining salmon more particularly when compared to its Conservative predecessor, the unwelcome news that broke in late May detailing cuts to the Salmon Enhancement Program caught many by complete surprise.

After reports of more monies to be directed to Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) the news that the Salmonids in the Classroom program and the SEP Resource Restoration Unit were being cancelled to save $2 million appears to be a complete reversal of what appeared to be a more encouraging direction by government towards salmon and the resources needed to sustain them and their habitats.

More puzzling yet was the statement by a senior DFO staff member that following a review these programs “were identified as not core to meet the department’s legislative and regulatory responsibilities.” If educating Canadian schoolchildren about salmon and their place in the Pacific region ecosystem and restoring salmon habitat are not core activities for DFO then the question has to be asked about what is?

Needless to say over the past several weeks there has been a groundswell of criticism from a broad range of groups and my guess is that some or all aspects of this action will be reversed, likely sooner than later. It seems clear the fish and fishing friendly minister, Dominic LeBlanc, was not briefed on the decision made deep within the bureaucracy he is ultimately responsible for and this has cast both he and the Liberal government in a very poor light.

Regrettably this hasn’t been the only recent decision by DFO that has caused doubt about its support for the recreational fishery across Canada and the fish resources and habitats necessary to support it. A couple of months ago, without any consultation or warning, the National Recreational Fisheries Award program was terminated. Since 1989 five individuals or organizations from across the country were recognized each year by the federal Minister for their volunteer work in supporting their local or regional recreational fisheries or the fish stocks or habitats that support them.

Over the years there were quite a number of recipients from the west coast and nobody I know who was so recognized became engaged in their activities in the hope of receiving an award. All the same it was quite an honour to become a recipient and until quite recently the awards ceremony took place in the Parliament Building in Ottawa amid suitable pomp and circumstance, no small memory for all those so chosen.

As someone who participated in the award selection process it’s true to say that there was some likelihood of the program being terminated in the Harper years, explicitly because of dollars to be saved. With the arrival of the Trudeau government and a supposedly different mindset that threat appeared to recede, however it wasn’t to be and this award program was ended abruptly with no real explanation, other than to say, “it wasn’t about money”. If so, it isn’t a good reflection of the present Liberal governments attitude towards the recreational fishery in Canada.

More locally, there are two management decisions that have been made by regional DFO staff which will continue to constrain recreational opportunity for chinook and coho retention in the Strait of Georgia and Johnstone Straits area of the BC coast.

For coho there will be no change to the status quo (1998 to present excepting 2014) management of wild coho, which means almost complete non-retention of wild coho around the inner south coast other than some customary time and area described exceptions. Details can be found in Fishery Notices #0481 and #0484, available on the DFO website.

This is particularly disappointing because the Sport Fishing Advisory Board coho working group worked with a modeling tool provided by DFO staff to try and develop new wild coho retention opportunities while remaining within the prescribed allowable estimate of mortalities on the Interior Fraser coho stock. This stock aggregate, which is to say all the coho that spawn in the entire Fraser watershed upstream of the Hells Gate canyon, continues to be the salmon stock the impact for which all fisheries for salmon are managed. The SFAB had developed a proposal, based on non-retention of wild coho in Area 12 before August 1 and which would have in theory provided an additional mortality allowance to be used elsewhere around the inner south coast and at different times.

While not entirely optimistic that the entire proposal would have been approved we were hopeful that elements of it would be used to develop a more flexible management approach that remained responsive to the conservation priority, however this proposal has been rejected outright for various reasons. Space precludes an in-depth analysis and it doesn’t change the realty anyway, basically it’s hatchery origin coho retention only once again around the inner south coast in 2017.

Similarly the SFAB had proposed a 50% reduction in the time component to the five areas around the north Strait of Georgia that are either a finfish closure or chinook non-retention and intended to lower the harvest rate on Cowichan River chinook. The stock there has rebounded significantly from lows ten or more years ago, finally exceeding the escapement target of 6500 adult fish in 2016.

The conservation benefit of the time and area restrictions has always been debatable, in that the stock of concern may be encountered elsewhere or at a different time, and so given the rebuilding of the run the proposal to start easing but not ending these restrictions seemed a reasonable approach. Once again DFO has refused, without any compelling evidence that the SFAB proposal was unnecessarily risky. I’m coming to the conclusion that restrictions on the recreational fishery are like gas prices – they come on in big jumps but getting rid of them is like watching the price of gas decline, usually by tiny amounts if at all.