On a cold, snowy afternoon in February, hundreds of angry people crowded into the riverside Rod and Gun Club in Kitimat, on B.C.'s northwest coast.

This is a town that has been badly hit by a series of job killing setbacks over the years, the latest the closing of a Eurocan paper mill last year with the loss of more than 500 jobs.

But for the people in the room today it is a new resource crunch that has them feeling threatened; as they see it, a much more restrictive Department of Fisheries and Oceans quota on recreational halibut.

robinrowland140x80

An author and historian, Robin Rowland was photo editor for CBC News Online until March 2010. He currently lives in Northwestern British Columbia.

Similar protests have flared up recently all along the B.C. coast and on Vancouver Island, many of them directed at local Conservative MPs.

As Mike Langegger, a member of the Kitimat Rod and Gun told the meeting: "This is a lifestyle, a tradition, a culture. It's the many friendships, families, bonds that are fostered in our fishing and hunting culture. Today we are standing up for our children and future generations."

The 2011 recreational halibut season has just opened, a month late, on March 1. And with it are growing fears that the season will close by mid-summer — meaning in the height of tourist season.

With the decline of the forest industry across the province, tourism is becoming a more important lifeline for these coastal regions and the recreational fishing community, from high-end lodges to small charter operators and individual anglers, say the new DFO policy, announced Feb. 15, will cut the season short, perhaps even as early as mid-June.

If there is a federal election this spring, you can expect these new sport-fishing quotas to be a hot issue on the B.C. coast.

Getting political

The basis for this fight is that the DFO closed the recreational halibut fishery early last year, on Oct. 18, saying it had reached its quota. At the same time, it allowed the commercial fishery to continue another month.

On its website, DFO says it expects the 2011 season to be about the same length but it also warned anglers, in a very prominent notice, to expect in-season changes.

halibut-300-5104097

Giant halibut, like this one caught in the Gulf of Alaska in 2008, can be worth in excess of $10,000 and are fast becoming one of the big sport fishes of the northern Pacific coast. (Associated Press)

These warnings, along with the early closure in 2010, prompted charter operators and others to form the B.C. Sports Fishing Coalition in December, to ramp up lobbying.

The halibut and salmon sports fisheries in B.C. attract anglers from across Canada and the U.S., with regular visitors from Europe, Australia and even China.

The B.C. government says the provincial sport fishing industry is responsible for 7,700 jobs and contributes $288 million to provincial GDP. Some estimates put that much higher, though, when other tourism expenses are factored in.

The broad fear among the sports fishing community here is that ongoing questions about halibut quotas could send valuable tourist dollars permanently north to Alaska, where there are fewer restrictions on the length of the season and the fish to be caught.

The big concern at the moment, however, is that the new February policy from DFO also creates a pilot project in which sports fishers, should they want to extend their season, could lease unused quota from the mostly large corporations that own the commercial halibut licences.

It is a bureaucratic compromise that has the sports fishery saying that the traditional right to put a line in the water is now being "privatized" and handed over, in some respects, to potential fish barons.

What's more, in this case the issue is compounded by the fact that commercial halibut licences, unlike others that are tied to actual boats, have been routinely bought and sold as investments in recent years, to the point where even DFO does not have a full list of who owns what now.

The history

Since 2003, DFO has given 88 per cent of B.C. halibut to the commercial fishery and the remaining 12 to all forms of recreational fishery. The annual overall allocation is set by the independent International Pacific Halibut Commission and the season closes when each sector's portion of the quota is reached.

In recent years, however, the commercial fishery, squeezed by rising costs and declining wholesale halibut prices, hasn't always taken its full quota. But it hasn't wanted to give that up either.

The new pilot project announced in February by federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea is seen by many here as tilting the system in favour of big business and possibly turning even daily fishing excursions into a tradable commodity.

At the Kitimat meeting, several speakers, mostly small business owners, touched on the issue, as did the local MP, New Democrat Nathan Cullen.

"It's complicated," he said, "but underneath all this are some competing ideas about whose resource this is. There's one set of beliefs that this is private, no different than buying a car, owning a restaurant.

"The other philosophy is that this is a public resource. If it is public, if it is an endowment, then you are going to get very different policies than the ones we are operating under right now."

Northern B.C., generally, has been NDP territory and with its small population is usually off Ottawa's political radar.

But the head of the Kitimat group calling itself the Halibut Task Force, charter operator Ron Wakita, is also targetting rod and gun clubs in Alberta and Saskatchewan, hoping to raise the issue in the Conservative heartland.

The group is distributing a poster warning anglers "You are losing your right to fish!"

'Slipper skippers'

With the halibut fight also taking hold on Vancouver Island and the lower mainland, this issue could play out in some of the key swing ridings in B.C. where the Conservatives hope make gains.

wakita-306

Ron Wakita, a Kitimat-based charter operator and tackle shop owner: 'You are losing your right to fish.' (Robin Rowland/CBC)

The root of the problem goes back to 2003, when then Liberal fisheries minister Robert Thibeault, created the initial 88—12 split, awarding the commercial licences for free to the original participants.

The recreational fishery objected at the time and has been fighting ever since, saying 12 per cent is not enough, especially with a growing tourist sector.

Over time, the value of the 436 commercial halibut licences has grown to the point that they are now estimated to be worth millions of dollars.

Some of those licences have been sold from the original stakeholders to investors because, unlike some commercial fishery licences, halibut licence owners don't actually have to fish themselves.

No official figures are available and DFO has told B.C. fishing organizations that it doesn't know who currently owns the licences today. Recreational activists estimate that at least 200 licence holders don't actually fish.

That's why groups like the B.C. Wildlife Federation, the B.C. Sports Fishing Coalition and the Kitimat task force are so rankled that they may have to pay what they call "slipper skippers" for the right to fish.

The number of people involved in recreational ocean fishing in B.C. is pretty big. Last year, for example, DFO issued 300,000 individual tidal-water fishing licences, of which 120,000 were resident anglers, at $21 each.

Paying a quota fee to a private licence owner for the right to fish would add to the cost.