British Columbia

DFO crackdown in northern B.C. unfair, fishermen claim

Commercial fishermen on B.C.'s North Coast are upset by what they're calling an unprecedented and unfair crackdown from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Tension on water as Fisheries and Oceans tries to curtail illegal bycatch

Fishermen at the Canfisco docks in Prince Rupert are complaining about what they see as an over-enforcement of rules by Fisheries and Oceans Canada officers. The DFO says it is encountering more resistance than expected on the North Coast. (George Baker/CBC)

Commercial fishermen on B.C.'s North Coast are upset by what they're calling an unprecedented and unfair Fisheries and Oceans Canada crackdown.

Chris Peterson, a skipper who has been fishing commercially off the coast of Prince Rupert for 40 years, says the DFO has gone too far. 

"I have never seen anything like this," Peterson said of the extra enforcement officers. "There were 17 of them on one boat last week — 17!" 

Most of the fishermen point to July 27 as the beginning of the conflict. That's the day Hartley Bay Band Council Chief and fisherman Arnold Clifton was boarded by two DFO officers.

"I was in the washroom on the boat when all hell broke loose," Clifton recalled, describing rude treatment from the officers. 

He was fined, and then boarded again two days later, this time by even more DFO officials. 

"It got so bad. They were so agressive."

Since then, fishermen have been sharing complaints about the ramped-up enforcement.

"All we're trying to do is make a living, and we have a whole bunch of people in power who do not know what they're doing," Peterson said. 

Chris Peterson says in his 40 years of commercial fishing, he's never encountered the number of DFO officers he has this year and worries it will put him out of work. (George Baker/CBC)

Extra officers to protect salmon stock: DFO

The tension stems from a difference of opinion over how fishing rules should be enforced — and whether some of them should be enforced at all. 

Fisheries and Oceans Canada confirms it has sent extra officers to the region to curtail bycatch violations — when fish that aren't in season are accidentally caught but not returned to the water.

"I was actually quite surprised by what our guys were finding, so we're ramping it up a little bit," said DFO director Tom Hlavac. 

Tom Hlavac, the DFO's acting regional director for conservation and protection, Pacific region. (Department of Fisheries and Oceans)

At sea, fishermen are required to use a small net to remove bycatch from the larger nets, so they can be returned alive and unharmed. Hlavac says that isn't always happening, with some fish being returned injured, and others not being returned at all.

Hlavac believes many fishermen simply don't understand the rules, which is why extra officers have been sent north. 

"It's probably a little bit of an education for some of the fishermen," he said. 

DFO out of touch, fishermen

Fisherman Chris Cook said he's being forced to throw away his livelihood.

"I think the value would be about $40,000 to $50,000 dollars worth of fish. That's a big financial hit," he said of the fish he's been told to throw overboard.

Cook says it's gotten to the point where he is being told to throw away more fish than he catches.

Chris Cook estimates he's been forced to throw away $50,000 worth of fish by DFO officers this year. (George Baker/CBC)

"They said, 'OK, we're gonna throw coho over.' We started throwing coho over just so we could fish. Then we started throwing steelhead over. Then spring salmon. Then chum salmon. You know, you could get a set of about 30 or 40 fish, throw everything over and maybe end up with one or two."

The fishermen also complain they are being told to throw away fish that are already dead, a move they say hurts them while doing nothing to help preserve populations.

Additionally, Peterson thinks DFO regulations are out of touch with the number of fish that are actually in the ocean.

"It does not make any sense ... but, nope, DFO knows better. They're screwing us."

Hlavac, though, says managing fish populations is a complicated process that requires a holistic understanding of migration patterns and fish populations throughout the province.

"Even though it appears like a lot [in the ocean], there's not that many in the rivers where fish migrate," he said. 

With files from George Baker.

To hear the full story, listen to the audio labelled DFO crackdown in northern B.C. unfair, say fishermen.

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