Recreational lodge and charter vessel interests are trying to make the federal government’s February decision to uphold a longstanding halibut allocation policy into an election issue, particularly on Vancouver Island.
But the real question is whether we manage a public resource that both supports and feeds Canadians according to proper science, sound fisheries management and careful policy development that involves all stakeholders, or by who can get the most protesters in front of a TV camera, write the most letters to the editor, or fund extensive lobbying campaigns.
No country should know better than Canada that political interference does not make for good fisheries management.
The February decision upheld the 2003 division of the Canadian halibut Total Allowable Catch between the two sectors for 2011, maintained the same recreational catch limits as the previous two years and announced a pilot program to allow recreational interests increased access through the acquisition of additional quota.
The decision also set in place a process to examine options for 2012. Despite the outcry from recreational operators, it’s a fair and sensible approach.
The original 2003 halibut allocation decision, upheld by subsequent ministers both Liberal and Conservative, was the result of a three-year, inclusive process.
After a series of independently facilitated meetings, the government retained an independent allocation advisor – now a BC Supreme Court judge – to meet with participants from both fisheries, review the facts and advise on initial sharing arrangements and how allocation could change over time.
Far from arbitrary or unfair, the halibut policy provided commercial and recreational shares of 88 percent and 12 percent respectively, after First Nations rights have been met.
It also proposed that recreational businesses should be able to acquire quota from the commercial sector to meet market demand.
The government’s recent decision allows the lodge and charter sector to grow without penalizing individual anglers who simply want a couple of halibut for the freezer.
Canadian residents with a BC tidal water recreational licence ($21 annually) can still catch one halibut a day, each and every day.
It also tasks parliamentary secretary Randy Kamp, MP for Pitt Meadows-Maple Ridge-Mission, with drafting halibut management options for 2012.
It’s a straightforward, transparent approach in line with previous policy decisions, rather than one influenced by lobbying outside the process.
The decision also makes the sustainability of the resource paramount. With Canada and the United States – the signatories to the Pacific Halibut Treaty – in a cyclical period of low halibut abundance, conservation is vital to carefully managing the resource.
Both countries have reduced allowable harvests for commercial and recreational fisheries to avoid overfishing. In BC, Total Allowable Catch for both sectors has declined from 13.24 million pounds in 2006 to 7.65 million pounds for 2011.
These are difficult times for BC’s commercial halibut fishermen. In addition to high fuel prices and monitoring costs, we have seen our catch levels decrease by almost 43 percent since 2006.
Commercial halibut fishermen fully support these measures to protect the resource. We are accountable for every single fish we harvest, with each fish videotaped as it’s pulled from the water, recorded in a logbook, counted again on landing by a dockside monitor and tagged with a unique serial number to validate its origin.
By contrast, the recreational fishery, with the lodge and charter vessel sector accounting for 60-70 percent of the catch, has overfished its quota for three of the past four years.
Rather than sharing protection of the resource, the lodge and charter business, which is every bit as commercial as commercial fisheries, wants more fish at the expense of commercial fishermen and the Canadian public, most of whom buy halibut at grocery stores or in restaurants not through trips to pricey fishing lodges.
The 2011 trial program allows these lodges and charters to increase their access to halibut. If this isn’t “economically feasible” as recreational spokesmen have insisted, then halibut is probably worth more as food than fun.
Meanwhile, the commercial fishery has invested in the halibut fishery for over 100 years. We recently became the first fishery in BC to be certified by the international Marine Stewardship Council as sustainable with the full support of the David Suzuki Foundation.
We carefully match fleet size to harvest limits to reduce pressure on the resource and minimize environmental impacts.
And we count every single fish we catch.
Commercial halibut fishermen are ready to work with the process announced in February.
Recreational fishermen should do the same.
Pacific Halibut Management Association,