Salmon buyback may spell sunset on way of life

Written By Tom Davis

In December 2022, the federal fisheries department launched yet another commercial salmon license buyback program intended to help west coast salmon runs recover. It’s the latest in a long string of similar programs that never reached their objective. 

There’s little to suggest this version will either.

Last year’s $123 million buyback program announced by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) stems from the $647 million Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative announced in June 2021, which included fishing fleet reduction as part of salmon recovery, but was thin on specifics. 

According to fishery representatives, the new buyback announcement offered some details, while also raising many more questions.

For the last decade, DFO sounded the salmon conservation alarm, citing multi-species historic declines of important salmon runs. DFO believes fleet reduction contributes to salmon recovery, while improving the economic position of those left in the fishery.

The buyback is scheduled to run into 2026. It’s estimated that approximately 1277 commercial seine, gill net and troll salmon license holders qualify for this reverse auction process. A reverse auction is structured so lowest bid wins, ensuring the government pays the least amount for licenses. 

Fishing trollers in Sooke Harbour. [Photo Tom Davis]

This buyback has other components. There are 748 First Nation salmon fishing licenses, including 254 in the Northern Native Fishing Corporation and 494 held communally. These are all eligible for buyback. However there is an option for participating license holders to purchase licenses for other marine species. 

There are also ongoing discussions on how to deal with unsold fishing vessels and gear, so disposal costs do not fall on vessel owners.

License buybacks not new  

Commercial salmon license buybacks go back to Fisheries Minister Jack Davis. The 1969 Davis Plan intended to reduce fishing capacity by limiting the licensed vessels that could participate, then ‘buying back’ renewable licenses. The plan only managed to remove six per cent of 5,870 eligible licenses, at a cost of just under $6 million.

In the mid 1990s, plummeting salmon catches prompted government to again reduce the size of the salmon fleet from its pre-1996 level of 4416 licenses. The Pacific Salmon Revitalization Strategy, called the Mifflin Plan after Fisheries Minister Fred Mifflin, included an $80-million voluntary buyback program. Poor fishing continued in 1997, prompting another buyback from 1998 to 2000, adding $198 million to the license retirement costs, but effectively reducing salmon licenses by 50 per cent.

According to a case study on the B.C buyback, the process was administratively efficient and likely mitigated more severe economic and social dislocation. However, despite reductions in the number of vessels, the capacity of the fleet to catch fish continued to increase, stated the report in 2015, adding “all the promises of a more economically viable fleet have not come to pass.”

Joy Thorkelson is the immediate past president of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union (UFAWU), and currently its northern representative. She has a long history with the west coast fishery and a strong connection to fishery workers and fishermen. In a recent interview, Thorkelson explained the buyback will initially attract inactive licenses, which she described as low hanging fruit, and rarely fished. 

“Expropriation, versus a fair buyback’

Removing these licenses will have little impact on reversing salmon declines, but might drive down the fair market value of active licenses, she said. She believes the reverse auction format is totally opposed by the fleet, and described the process as “expropriation versus a fair buyback.” 

Thorkelson wondered if active fishermen, for whom fishing has been their way of life, will accept a low-ball buyback offer if they think they can still make a living from salmon.  Since the buyback is voluntary, even fisheries officials don’t know how many will actually leave the fishery. 

Thorkelson pointed to fundamental questions, which DFO has failed to adequately answer.

First, the government has neither defined success nor explained their vision for the post-buyback commercial fishery.

Second, there is significant concern within UFAWU members that most remaining licenses could end up in corporate hands, leaving coastal communities without access to salmon, further weakening their economic base.

Third, is there a serious salmon habitat restoration plan in place?  

In 1972, Mike Griswold bought his first salmon troller and hasn’t missed a season until he retired in 2019. He is past president of the Gulf Trollers Association and remains deeply involved in salmon discussions. Griswold is currently an industry advisor on the Pacific Salmon Commission’s Fraser Panel, where he holds the distinction of being Canada’s longest serving member. 

He thinks the buyback will target the gill net fleet, and based on previous buyback performances, he “does not expect there to be increased commercial catches.” He’s also skeptical about government’s vision for future commercial fisheries, calling it “vague” and “pie in the sky that’s all been said before.”

There needs to be a contractual obligation with DFO outlining “how benefits will be distributed [among users] to have some credibility with the commercial industry,” Griswold said.

Fraser River salmon gill net test fishing [Pacific Salmon Commission]

Phil Young is vice-president of Fisheries and Corporate Affairs at the Jim Pattison Group’s Canadian Fishing Company (Canfisco).

“[DFO] didn’t listen to what the industry was telling them,” said Young, citing the use of a reverse auction instead of fair market value, and the lack of license reform.

Young said he thinks DFO had already decided how to set up the program before it consulted with stakeholders, pointing out DFO did “not tell us how many licenses would remain at the end of the process.” 

‘DFO didn’t listen’

By his estimate, the fleet should be reduced by 80 per cent to ensure those remaining can survive financially. 

Fishers believe the smaller fleet will have a higher percentage of Indigenous participants — “obligations to First Nations are well understood” — although it’s not clear how it will be realized, he said.

Young is also skeptical of the touted salmon conservation benefits. “The fleet reduction is mainly about economic benefits for those remaining, not about conservation.”

Work needs to be done on habitat restoration and the root causes affecting fish survival, he said. Salmon runs “require big picture solutions that are much harder than just closing a fishery.”  

“Fleet reduction is mainly about economic benefits for those remaining, not about conservation.”

Phil Young

The buyback is only one element of DFO’s commitment to assist weak salmon stocks and transform the commercial salmon fishery, said department communications advisor, Alexandra Coutts.

Other components of the initiative include “selective harvesting methods, modernizing license and regulation frameworks, establishing the Habitat Restoration Centre and increasing First Nations stewardship capacity,” she said.

The goal of the program is to “right size the fleet” so the catch is better aligned with what’s available in the long term, she said.

The license retirement program, which permanently removes licenses, will “allow us to take pressure off prioritized stocks [and] advance concrete results in salmon rebuilding,” Coutts said.  

Is there a way forward?

After a career researching salmon and seeing federal fisheries programs come and go, Tutty said DFO “lost its way a long time ago.”

Decades ago, retired senior DFO biologist Brian Tutty developed a system to reduce river water temperature on migrating salmon and was involved in the set-up of a successful habitat roundtable process for the Cowichan River.

“[DFO] lost its way a long time ago.”

Brian Tutty

“The salmon resource can only be saved if it is directly connected to those who have a vested long-term interest in their local watersheds,” he said. 

Installing fish ladders opens up unused salmon habitat. [Photo Tom Davis]

Many previously damaged salmon habitats now have viable populations of salmon, principally because concerned citizens invested money and time in restoring their community watersheds. This is an achievable and proven part of a salmon recovery plan.

This is a viable pathway forward, but habitat restoration is expensive. Consequently, governments must commit enough long-term comprehensive support for on-the-ground salmon recovery.

If not, the future of salmon and dependent fisheries will remain in question and the latest buyback program may signal the sunset on a coastal way of life.