Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Us, Poachers? Part II

Stalking lingcod (see last post) offered another perspective on fisheries conservation. After spending an hour deciphering the DFO Tidal Waters handbook, we saw, or thought we saw, that we were allotted one 65-cm lingcod in region 17. But the season was undefined, and we were supposed to call the DFO to check before fishing.

We didn't, and today I found out-- after talking to the DFO's groundfish department-- that we escaped being poachers only by our bad luck. Apparently lingcod and rockfish have been in recovery from overfishing in most of the waters of southern BC for the past 15 years, and the limited recreational fishery doesn't open until June. If we had known that, but caught a sizable and tasty lingcod, would we really have thrown it back? Or would we have turned poacher?

It’s easy to blame an agency like the DFO for failures in fishery management. Something has to change at the top, but this week I got a more internal, bottom-up sense of the problem. Out on a barnacled bank surrounded by seals, otters and rich marine life— or on a skiff, or on a fishing boat— government rules seem arbitrary, and authority very distant. What does a bureaucracy like the DFO have to do with such places, and what could be more natural than catching a fish in the Salish Sea and taking it back to our dinner table?


Regulating shared use of the oceans has everything to do with such places, of course. It's just very difficult to remember that when it's your line in the water. It's a disjunct more abrupt than carrying a fishing rod down East Hastings Street-- a gap between what we know we ought to do and what we justify doing.

A couple of vacationers casting for an off-season lingcod near Galiano Island is not quite the same as industrial draggers on the Grand Banks shoaling up 200 tonnes of Atlantic cod per hour (twice as much in one hour, Alex Rose once pointed out, as the traditional schooners would have caught in a season). But it's mostly a difference of quantity. The mindset is the same. We wanted a fish; we’d bought the gear and come down there to catch it; and if the authorities said we couldn’t… well, the authorities weren't around, and what's the harm? We should we turf our plans because of some bureaucratic booklet?

This line of thinking can expand to millions of fish when entitlement is magnified by regionalism (“I’ve lived In BC my whole life, these fish belong to me, screw those idiots in Ottawa”), ancestral heritage (“My family has been fishing here for three generations”) or investment (“I spent $600,000 on this boat and license, you’re not going to shut me down now”). While keeping an eye on captured agencies is at least half the issue, we get the regulatory agencies we deserve. Every snowflake in an avalanche pleads not guilty.

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