Port Renfrew businesses say fishing closures threaten livelihoods

Written By Tom Davis

For decades, logging and commercial fishing have sustained Port Renfrew, a small community along a major adult salmon migration route in the Juan de Fuca Strait. As commercial fishing declined, the community pivoted to recreational fisheries and is now locked in a David and Goliath struggle with the federal government, according to local business leaders.

“Our community has embarked on a remarkable journey of economic transformation, pivoting towards tourism as a viable alternative. Central to this transition has been the development of our recreational fishery, which has flourished over the past two decades,” Chris Tucker, business owner and Port Renfrew Chamber of Commerce president, explained in a February 2024 letter to Diane Lebouthillier, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard (DFO). 

Chinook are an essential part of the community’s recreational fishery economy. They are also the preferred food source for endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW). Based on advice from government’s SRKW recovery team, DFO imposed numerous static no salmon fishing closures between Swiftsure Bank and the mouth of the Fraser River.  

In its 2024/25 SRKW regulations package, DFO recommended expanding the closures, implemented in 2018, a move that would have removed most of Port Renfrew’s angling areas. Fortunately, in a recent announcement, Minister Lebouthillier backed off on expanding closures, leaving the Southern Resident Killer Whale regulation unchanged until 2025. 

This provided some relief locally, but did not address underlying concerns about static fishing closures.  

Local businesses urge for balance approach

Tucker says Port Renfrew business owners support SRKW recovery, but strongly urge DFO to adopt a “balanced approach that safeguards both our environment and our economy.” 

In his letter to Minister Lebouthillier, Tucker said, “Port Renfrew has profound concerns that closure of the recreational salmon fishery poses an imminent threat to our livelihoods.” 

Recent surveys of the local business community estimate the recreational charter fishery injects $103,000 daily to Port Renfrew’s economy. With spin-offs, that increases to $158,000 per day, totaling more than $26 million over the 165-day season. 

Port Renfrew fishing charter [Photo Wild Coast Wilderness Resort]

Tucker contends the prescription for SRKW recovery is the problem, not the goal, and that the data used to justify the non-salmon-fishing regulations is based on limited real time visual observations and overly reliant on spatial-temporal logistic models. 

Tucker’s letter to the Minister includes data pointing to Chinook recovery trends for important southern B.C. stocks. “Thompson River summer-run Chinook escapements exceeded 627,000 or fivefold the escapement goal; Harrison River fall runs were 150,000, nearly double the DFO target and Cowichan River Chinook were 21,000, or more than 3 times the DFO target.” These runs all occur within SRKW critical habitat.

Several guides and anglers who have spent tens of thousands of fishing hours reported SRKW sightings “near the beach” are rare. They agree sightings are more common offshore and near Swiftsure Bank and maintain, that, based on their observations, existing whale avoidance regulations provide adequate protection. 

DFO says Chinook abundance an issue

According to Kendra Moore, DFO’s acting marine mammal manager, the hard data for government’s models relies on occurrence data collected by DFO in the Swiftsure region and by whale watching vessels in the inner Salish Sea from 2009-2019, as well as behavioural data collected in the summers of 2018 through 2021.

Between 2018 and 2023, the DFO team spent 277 days on the water, encountering SRKW’s on 143 of those days, and in 2023 they spent 205 hours on the water and encountered Southern Resident Killer Whales about 25 per cent of the time, according to Moore. The data was collected throughout DFO’s entire observed range, which extends well beyond Port Renfrew.

DFO’s whale recovery team maintains the closures are necessary to provide a quiet zone for SRKWs to feed – but Port Renfrew’s closed salmon fishing areas remain open for other marine activities. Local business owners contend the closures disproportionately hurt the recreational fishery. 

DFO’s recovery team contends Chinook abundance remains an issue. In a written response to questions from the Sport Fishing Advisory Board, Moore downplayed multi-year Chinook abundance research done by Dr. Andrew Trites, head of UBC’s Marine Mammal Research Unit, and internationally recognized acoustics expert, Dr. Mei Sato, who concluded there were sufficient Chinook in Canadian waters for SRKWs. 

Trites and Sato did not discount the possibility of inadequate Chinook abundance elsewhere, highlighting the need for more research.

Duelling perspectives on best recovery plan

Environmental-non-governmental organizations have been very public and generally at odds with the stance of the angling community. In an April 2024 Raincoast Conservation Foundation press release, the authors coined the term bright extinction, referring to “the failure of SRKWs to recover despite being the best-studied cetaceans in the world.”

Their analysis showed that improved access to Chinook had the best chance to “leverage recovery, but…would not result in a full recovery.” Their recovery scenario focuses on actions that impact how and where Chinook fisheries are conducted, and the age structure of Chinook populations.

Conversely, Renfrew businesses support marked selective fisheries for hatchery Chinook, combined with a strategy of not fishing whenever SRKWs are nearby. They also seek much-improved community engagement with DFO to develop workable effective measures that balance their needs with those of SRKWs.

After DFO implemented Chinook-non-retention to conserve Upper Fraser River Chinook salmon in 2019, angling advisors proposed alternative fishing plans to protect the Chinook, while also providing modest access to abundant stocks. 

Aerial of Port Renfrew Marina [Photo Rex Coburn]

The proposed strategy is built around marked selective fisheries, which allows anglers to retain hatchery Chinook – recognizable by their clipped adipose fin – and release unmarked Chinook.The plan requires hatchery staff to adipose fin-clip enough Chinook fry, referred to as mass marking. 

Advocates contend that government has slow-walked implementation. However, it does appear DFO is now moving towards this strategy, even as concerns persist that it may not benefit regions where it is most needed. 

Canada fin-clips 15 per cent of its hatchery Chinook. By contrast, the US marks almost 100 per cent. These US salmon are available in areas like Port Renfrew, but currently can’t be retained.

 “There is an abundance of marked fish near Renfrew from Apr. 1 to July 15 [and] ….catches some days are well over 50 per cent hatchery marked,” Matt Riley, a Renfrew charter owner and First Nation member, wrote in an email. Riley said of the 10 fish he recently caught, five 15-pounders were hatchery fish. “All released,” he said. 

More studies in the works

More studies are ongoing, including multi-year, observational-based research in western Juan de Fuca Strait and at Swiftsure Bank, says marine mammal zoologist and co-owner of Sea View Marine Sciences, Dr. Anna Hall, who is conducting research with the Pacheedaht First Nation and Sea Mammal Research Unit Consulting. 

“The study aims to provide detailed sighting and behavior data in this understudied region of the B.C. coast,” says Hall. 

The collaborative research program began in 2020 with goals of understanding where and when the endangered Southern Residents occur, as well as documenting their behaviours, she said. The work also observes transient killer whales, humpback whales, and porpoises, and has already noted Southern Resident and transient killer whale sighting rates are comparatively lower than other cetacean species.

While officials and researchers keep looking for a solution that works for everyone – including SRKWs – Port Renfrew residents are watching closely. Their future depends on it.