British Columbia

'They're flat broke': Salmon fishermen demand disaster relief for failed season

With some of this year's salmon runs projected to be the lowest on record, West Coast salmon fishermen are demanding disaster relief from the federal and provincial governments.

Union president argues low salmon returns a climate change impact like forest fires, flood, tornadoes

Sockeye salmon in the Adams River near Shuswap Lake, north of Kamloops B.C., swim around 450 kilometres from the ocean via the Fraser and Thompson rivers to return to spawn where they were born. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

With some of this year's salmon runs projected to be the lowest on record, West Coast salmon fishermen are demanding disaster relief from the federal and provincial governments.

The Pacific Salmon Commission is forecasting a total return of only 447,000 sockeye salmon to the Fraser, one of the world's richest salmon rivers, this year.

"This is the lowest run size ever estimated since estimates began in 1893, and lower than the previous record for lowest run size of 858,000 observed in 2016," its report read. 

Just nine years ago, in 2010, the forecasted return of sockeye salmon to the Fraser River was 34.5 million.

The United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union says those with salmon-only licences have been devastated.

Union president Joy Thorkelson says the season has been a total failure across all the major salmon-producing regions in the province: the Fraser, the Skeena, and the Central Coast.

"Mother Nature is very variable and some years stocks will come back in large numbers and other years they won't. But this is the first year that I can remember — and I've been around for a long, long time now — where we've had a failure in every area of the B.C. coast." 

'Flat broke'

She says fishermen — especially those with salmon-only licences — are devastated. 

"They're flat broke," she said. 

"Many of them are in debt because they got the boat and gear ready for the season and they [invested] quite heavily in doing that. And then they put fuel in their boats and went to the fishing grounds and then caught nothing."

On behalf of these fisherman, Thorkelson has put forward a letter asking the provincial and federal governments for climate change disaster assistance. 

"This is a climate change impact just the same as if you were in an area that was burned by forest fires or an area that was flooded out or hailed out or tornadoed out," she said. 

Thorkelson said the fishermen are hoping for short-term relief, but acknowledges that a more long-term plan needs to be developed. 

"How are we going to have commercial fishermen and shoreworkers that can hang on to remaining in that industry? How can we have processors who are able to make it from one year to the next and be profitable?"

Government response

Jocelyn Lubczuk, the press secretary for Minister Jonathan Wilkinson of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, told CBC News that she "understands and empathizes with the economic impacts of the declining salmon returns across B.C."

"Sadly today, many runs are in steep decline as direct result of a number of factors, including habitat destruction, harvest, and the effects of climate change," she wrote. 

She added that while the DFO does not have the mandate to provide financial aid for Canadian workers, it will reach out to the proper department to discuss salmon fishermen on the West Coast. 

In response to CBC News, the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture said it has "strongly urged the Government of Canada to provide specific Employment Insurance enhancements aimed at assisting commercial fishermen and shoreworkers in B.C.'s fisheries-dependent communities."

They noted the federal government has provided similar assistance in the Atlantic fisheries.

It also says the province is committed to conserving wild stocks so the industry can sustainably harvest salmon into the future.

Listen to the segment on CBC's On The Island:

Salmon returns across B.C. have been very low this year. The Pacific Salmon Commission's latest report projects the lowest Fraser River sockeye run since 1893. And now the United Fisherman and Allied Workers Union says those with salmon-only licences have been devastated. Union President Joy Thorkelson spoke with guest host Liz McArthur. 9:51

With files from On the Island

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