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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