By Rochelle Baker, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
CANADA’S NATIONAL OBSERVER
Ottawa has launched its awaited fisheries licence buyback program to protect plummeting Pacific salmon stocks on the West Coast.
Looking to fix the problem of too many boats chasing too few fish, on Wednesday, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) unveiled details on its voluntary commercial licence retirement (LRP) program that will pay salmon harvesters to exit the industry.
However, the union for commercial fishers says first impressions suggest the plan is “deeply disappointing” and designed to drivedown the value of licences being bought out.
“It just picks off the most desperate people who need the money and have no other choice,” said James Lawson, president of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union (UFAWU).
DFO says fish harvesters will get market value for their retired licences based on publicly available assessments prior to 2021 (nearly 60 per cent of commercial salmon fisheries were shuttered that year).
The buyback program will use a reverse bid system where commercial licence-holders suggest a price for the retirement of their licence and the DFO will decide which bids to accept.
However, fish harvesters involved in DFO consultations about the program expressly rejected a reverse bid process, Lawson said, adding it will result in a race to the bottom for the industry as a whole.
Fishers left in the worst financial straits after the commercial salmon sector’s long decline will need to offer the lowest bid, undercutting everyone else to ensure they get some small piece of the funding pie, Lawson said.
“I don’t know why DFO is talking about providing `market price’ when it’s the opposite,” Lawson said, who is also a commercial fisher based out of Campbell River.
UFAWU had recommended DFO come up with uniform offers based on the number and type of licence, he added.
DFO is allocating $123 million from its Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative for the licence buyback and two additional future programs.
One is a program to dispose of derelict vessels and gear in an environmentally safe way for commercial fish harvesters who receive a licence buyback. The other is a plan – still in development – for First Nations with a communal salmon commercial licence to exchange it for funding tied to market value to purchase commercial licences for other fish species, such as halibut.
An additional $8.36 million is still available under the Pacific Salmon Treaty mitigation program targeted on retiring eligible commercial salmon troll licences, DFO said.
Approximately 1,300 individual commercial salmon licences are eligible immediately for buyback, according to DFO. But it’s not clear yet how many licence-holders will opt to retire their licence.
Approximately 30 to 50 per cent of the commercial salmon fleet hasn’t been participating in the fishery over the past five years, and licence-holders from this group are likely to be the most interested in leaving the sector, according to DFO.
How much money each program will get is flexible and based on the amount of interest from applicants, the department said. The LRP program starts immediately and will run until March 2026, subject to remaining funds.
However, Lawson said $123 million spread across three programs is far short of what’s needed to help the number of struggling fish harvesters.
It also appears there won’t be significant compensation for fishers’ investments into gear and vessels, which are very expensive.
Some nets can cost up to $10,000, while a large seine fishing boat may go for $1.5 million, Lawson said.
There also isn’t assistance for crew members without work once a licence is retired, he said.
“So many people are relying on these programs,” he said. “It’s really just a token buyout.”
Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer