Thursday, May 21, 2009

Terry and the Pirates

Here's a good quote from Terry Glavin. Among many other things, the formidable Mr. Glavin is the author of an elegiac work on BC white sturgeon called A Ghost in the Water, and more recently an assay of the Sixth Extinction called Waiting for the Macaws. This is from a paper presented at The World Summit on Salmon in 2003:

It is so deliciously easy to heap calumny upon the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. If the department did not exist, I would say it would be necessary to invent it, if only for the purpose of attributing all that ails us to what we so affectionately call DFO mismanagement… The department is not to blame - we all are. City people, farmers, loggers, fishermen, fisheries managers, even environmentalists – none of us are without virtue, and none are without blame.

He's right. Blaming the DFO is partly a tired cliche that lets us all off the hook. The DFO does do some things well, when doing so is politically safe-- as in a few rare cases like the quota fishery, where the solution is a win-win for business and wild fish. But when the GDP or a powerful lobby group has to give up short-term profit for the sake of wild fish or their habitat, the DFO is generally about as threatening as a shucked oyster.

The DFO is a political creature, part of the old top-down model of governance, where citizens fob off their local responsibilities onto bureaucrats and politicians. Like most of us I have externalized my civic duties, and the time I ought to spend helping steward earth and wild creatures-- a day each month, say, or two hours a week doing stream restoration, writing a letter to a politician, showing up at a town meeting-- I spend watching sitcoms. It's easy to forget that that steward-time is part of our rent for living on earth. If we're not pitching in, we're brigands and pirates—plunderers abroad on the high seas of late-hour capitalism, fit for the karmic lash.

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The photo of Mr. Glavin is from his bio at the New Star Book site. Click on it to read his recent essay connecting Pacific salmon to Haitian food riots, vanishing frogs and the Janjaweed militia in Chad.

The Pacific Region branch has done, and continues to do, a wealth of important and thankless work. What it has handled poorly has been in spite of the strong field work of its corps of researchers.

If there is a root disease at the core of DFO dysfunction, it is a simple but incurable one: politics. Politics is unavoidable, because wherever there is a commons with human beings who want to get their share, there will be politics. Fishermen and conservationists complain that the agency has no spine, and rightly so, because like other Canadian regulatory agencies the DFO doesn’t possess a spine so much as a length of deck-hose: a central conduit that relays the voice of the appointed Minister, Deputy Minister, or Assistant Deputy Minister at the other end.

Blaming the potentates— past DFO Ministers Tom Siddon or Loyola Hearn, or current Minister Gail Shea— misses the point. Fisheries are no different than any other regulated resource, with most politicians tending the bar for rum-drunk captains of industry.

DFO reform will only happen when British Columbia voters themselves take a strong position and demand it. This is the rub. As Vancouver Sun writer Scott Simpson once said, “I think people in general have a sort of nominal concern about salmon, but it’s not on a level that would translate into votes for any politician who decided to champion their welfare.” We have met the problem, in other words, and it is us: those who profess to care about salmon and wild fish but don’t make it a policy issue for politicians.

See Alex Rose's Who Killed The Grand Banks? for more of the discussion with Scott Simpson quoted above.

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Monday, May 11, 2009

"So what’s better, more fish, less money? Or less fish, more money? It’s pretty obvious."

Here's a look at something the DFO is doing right. Steve Johansen and Dane Chauvel, two Vancouver-based fishermen, promote and sell sustainably harvested seafood in their Organic Ocean cooperative. In an interview in the cabin of Dane's troller Carte Blanche they talk about the ITQ (Individual Transferable Quota) system. With ITQs, fishermen are allotted shares of the Total Allowable Catch.

ITQs are in distinction to the old "derby" method where fishermen competed against each during limited fishery openings of several days or several hours.

The photo at left is of Dane, from a Province newspaper article about urban chicken coops, another of his interests in sustainable local food.


STEVE: A quota fishery its better for the fish. It’s better for the resource. When it’s quota it’s a controlled fishery, and that’s important.

DANE: It’s the key point, because in an open, competitive derby fishery you don’t know what you’ve caught until it’s over—

STEVE: Until it closes.

DANE: And you can go way over. It means that from a resource management perspective it’s a nightmare.

Why did, or does, the derby type of fishery exist? I don’t understand that whole concept of the way that a derby fishery would even be rationalized.

STEVE: It’s just because it’s always been that way.

Go out there for three days and kill ‘em. If you don’t, you don’t, if you miss ‘em you miss ‘em.

STEVE: Say there’s a gillnet opening in Johnson Straits for chums, they’re not quota— or the Fraser River— say its open 12 hours, it’s open 12 hours. The fleet in general could go way over their allocated amount of fish for that particular opening. Which happens all the time.

DANE: It’s a big issue. And Steve hasn’t even touched on the issues of quality or safety. You can imagine when you have a free-for-all like that, which is catch as many as you can as quickly as you can, [it means] no concern for the quality of the fish. Also the practice of catching as many as you can as quickly as you can in a limited time frame means the fishermen are forced to go out in sometimes perilous circumstances. It’s already a very dangerous occupation made that much more dangerous by the pressure you place them under with that kind of fishing regime. It’s just dumb.

(Interview continues...)

Do you have any idea why we do it that way, was it begun before we had depth sounders, or had any idea of where the fish were, or what? What was the origin of the derby fishery?

DANE: There was some attraction to it, from a purely capitalistic perspective it was a wonderful free for all— it was like prospecting. You could go out and you could make a lot of money. And there’s no doubt that fishermen are a competitive entrepreneurial breed and they like that. And we do too!

Let the better fisherman win.

DANE: Yeah, if you’re a good fisherman you do well. The only thing is, that’s really out of step with the resource— and also with the market. The market does not want a glut of bad product all coming on stream at the same time. The halibut fishery morphed from a derby competitive fishery maybe 15 yrs ago. They used to have three-day season. They now have an eight month season.

STEVE: And when you talk about safety, a lot of guys died every year on that halibut fishery. Because its only three days, if there’s a storm coming, guess what? You’re out there. I remember one year there was a freak storm up there. You remember that? Nine guys died or something like that. One storm. Up at Dixon Entrance, the Queen Charlottes. And I believe quota came a couple years after that.

But quota also, the areas that we fish— whether it’s the area they call the Area H license which is all the way here to Port Hardy on the inside waters, trollling, hook and lining— and where Dane fishes up in Haida Gwaii, they have a quota fishery and they have for three or four years now, or more. And our chefs, they love that we’re quota guys.

Because the quality is right there, and of course the sustainable angle as well.

DANE: We know how many pieces we’re allotted, and we’re allowed a broad window of time in which to catch them. So our focus is not going out and catching as many fish as possible as quick as we can, our focus is going out when the weather’s good, the circumstances are good. When we harvest the fish, we bleed it, we eviscerate it, we chill it— we take such incredible care with it.

STEVE: Because you’re not worried about it closing tomorrow. You’ve got all the time you need.

So a quota system already exists for some of the stuff you’re fishing. Which is what, ling cod…?

STEVE: We fish, halibut, ling cod and salmon—for example in the Johnson Straits where we troll, hook and line—is a quota system, and the seiners are quota, but the gillnetters that fish the same area aren’t. Because they keep outvoting it. Because it’s the old school mentality.
Down to the economics of it, when I’m up there fishing chums in the fall, I’m bringing in chums at three bucks a pound, that’s what I’m getting because of the love we put it into it, because it’s quota. But the derby mentality guys, they’re pulling in as many as they can, they’re not even cleaning them, four or five hundred a day, they’re all over the f*cking deck, they don’t bleed em, nothing, so yeah they get 20, 30, 40 cents a pound. So what’s better, more fish, less money? Or less fish, more money? It’s pretty obvious.

DANE: We can make the argument that fewer fish at a higher price will make you more money than a lot of fish at a low price.

So it’s value-added fish.

STEVE: Absolutely, it’s a hundred percent value-added. It’s good for the resource.

That’s good to hear. So from the bureaucracy or agency side, the DFO is saying well we’d love this but the gillnetters are outvoting it. It’s not a problem from the DFO side, it’s from the fishermen who don’t want it.

DANE: I think that’s largely true.

STEVE: I think so. In our association that represents the Johnson strait trollers, we’ve had three votes in the past three years , we’ve all voted for quota, where the gillnets all voted agaisnt it. In the Charlottes, here’s a really good contrast, there’s three guys out of 247 licenses —when it was still an option, it isn’t any longer—only three guys chose derby, non-derby. Everybody else was on the quota bandwagon.

DANE: It’s one of these things where there’s a lot of resistance to it, unitl you actually try it or implement it. Once you get it in place, people go ‘Wow, I don’t know what I was worried about, this is a good thing.’

STEVE: And I’m one of ‘em. We used to slay up there— you know, king of the hill, catch as many as you can. Then about four or five years ago I got into this business of dealing with chefs, selling high quality for more money. The writing’s on the wall.

It doesn’t make any sense to slay if you have to catch 10 times as much fish to make the same amount of money.

STEVE: I horrified a lot of my friends when I first started, they’ve all come to the same camp with us now. At first it was like ‘F*ck, what are you doing Steve? They all get it now.’

DANE: We start talking about the advantages. One of the things fishermen are concerned about is if they go to a quota fishery they would make less money, I would have less opportunity, but the exact opposite has proven true. Not just because of the price-quality argument, but because quotas are transferable.

So what that means is if Steve wants to go out and catch more fish, he can lease quota from that guy there or me, or that guy over there. He can go out and catch more fish. So it really facilitates consolidation of fishing privilege. And sometimes there are so few fish to be caught, it makes more sense for Steve and I to go out on one boat, with one diesel engine running, with one set of gear, than for both of us to take our own boats. This is particularly true in the seine fleet, where you’ve got crews of 5, 6 and 7 guys— and they’ve got much higher operating costs. With quota they can consolidate their fishing privielges and prosecute the fishery much more efficiently.
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The Fish, by Elizabeth Bishop

One of the great works of fish lit, by poet Elizabeth Bishop. Here's the first part. To read the rest, click the end link.

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of its mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down...

(full poem here)
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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Catching Up

Apologies for the lack of posts over the past month— I’ve been focused on writing a magazine feature on DFO reform. I submitted the first draft last night around 4:30 am. Woke up at noon and still feel slightly underwater.

The research and writing was a big learning curve. Trying to sum up the troubles with the agency and some possible solutions in 3500 words has been like trying to put a 200-lb halibut into a grocery bag.

I'll reveal where it's going to be published a little closer to the release date.

One of the burn-your-fingers issues I learned more about during the article research is that of “missing sockeye” on the Fraser. To read the cranky but informative 2005 report on this issue by the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, click here. (Note that it doesn't scroll; you have to page through it by clicking the arrow in the bottom corner of your screen.)

Hopefully the feature will raise some questions about this issue and the DFO's handling of it. It also discusses a couple of radical ways to work around or transform the agency's handling of fisheries and habitat.

Drawing from the work of Ray Hilborn, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and a fisheries professor at the University of Washington, the article also considers a better model for fisheries management, drawn from northern latitudes.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting some chunks from my research. This one is from a visit with two Vancouver fishermen, Dane Chauvel and Steve Johansen, partners in the Organic Ocean cooperative that sells sustainably sourced seafood from Fisherman’s Wharf on Granville island. Click the "Read Full Post" link below to see an excerpt from a talk we had in the cabin of Chauvel’s troller.

The picture above is from Robert Lackey's site at the US Environmental Protection Agency. Lackey took a "salmon-centric" view of the growth of the Seattle-Vancouver ("SeaVan") metropolis over the coming decades at the World Summit on Salmon in 2003.

Here Dane talks a bit about sustainable fishing. In the next post (give me a couple of days) I’ll give an excerpt where Dane and Steve talk about how fishermen are catching less fish for more money, and why quota systems— which have been controversial in the conservation community, but may be our best hope for saving ocean species—are a good thing for fish and for fishermen.

When you say sustainable, how is that measurable, or tracked, or what’s the definition of that for you in your fishery?

What we do, we’re very specific in terms of the fish or the seafood that we target. We focus on fish that are not endangered, and harvesting practices that are environmentally responsible. Most of our finfish is either caught via hook and line or in a very targeted terminal gillnet fishery so that we’re not harvesting non-directed, unintended bycatch. In the instance of products like BC spot prawns, they’re caught by trap, not by trawl so there s no environmental damage or degradation by that fishery. And again it tends to be very species specific and targeted.

What do you fish for?

I have licenses for salmon, ling cod, halibut, and we have communal licenses for spot prawns.

And all of those ling cod, salmon and halibut are line caught.


The trawl fishery has a fairly bad reputation for its environmental damage. Is that deserved? It sounds like it just scrapes the sh*t out of ocean floor, is that true?

I think that’s generally the case. I think there’s midwater trawl that’s not as invasive, but the issues with midwater trawl are harvesting non-targeted species. By dragging your net along you’re just going to catch whatever’s there. And by dragging along the bottom, that just wreaks havoc on the seabed.

That’s interesting. Now that you mention it it makes sense that troll versus trawl would be the most sustainable. I hadn’t really thought of the gear aspect of it.

What you can do with hook and line fisheries, you can be very species-specific in terms of what you target—

In terms of where you’re fishing, when you’re fishing and what you’re using for bait.


If you find that you’re harvesting non-directed or unintended bycatch, you move to another area. Whereas with some of the other competitive fisheries, by the time you find out you’ve done the damage its too late.
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