Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns does not believe the federal government has consulted adequately with the West Coast on a potential fishing closure next year.
In an Oct. 31 announcement, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said Swiftsure and La Pérouse Banks have been identified as critical habitats for Southern Resident Killer Whales and that they plan to pursue a Ministerial Critical Habitat Order through the Species at Risk Act. That could lead to fishery closures around Ucluelet and Bamfield to protect the salmon DFO believes the whales need to feed on.
Johns spoke in the House of Commons on Nov. 2, urging the government to engage more collaboratively with the communities the potential closures would affect and immediately invest in wild salmon restoration.
“The government cites its Ocean Protection Plan of $1.5 billion yet, Madame Speaker, through their coastal restoration fund, the Somass River has seen nothing, Clayoquot [Sound] has seen nothing; our hatcheries haven’t seen an increase in 28 years,” Johns said, directing his comments to Liberal MP Francesco Sorbara, noting Sorbara grew up in British Columbia.
“This is an urgent situation. So, while this process is going forward, if they wanted to build credibility with coastal British Columbians, especially the people from the District of Ucluelet that rely on our fishing industry, they’d be investing money right now in that habitat for not just our killer whales but for our communities and the health of our fish. This could be a solution for all of us.”
Sorbara did not refute any of John’s words, but thanked him for pointing out where he grew up and noted that he and many of his family members had worked at a salmon cannery in Prince Rupert.
“What I will say is we want a robust fishing industry from coast to coast to coast, but the reality that I dealt with is many of those canneries that were in the town of Prince Rupert where I grew up are no longer there,” Sorbara responded. “The fishing industry has changed, unfortunately. A lot of those canneries actually have shut down.”
Speaking to the Westerly News, Johns said he planned to meet with DFO on Thursday and would urge them to consult with West Coast communities more thoroughly before making any closure decisions.
“We want to make sure that they’re not going to take a sledgehammer approach to things,” Johns said. “People are saying, ‘I get it, maybe my freezer won’t be full next winter,’ but they don’t want their freezer to be empty. There’s a difference. People are fine to maybe take a little less, have their freezer half-full, but let’s take a community based approach…People are willing to make the sacrifices that are necessary, but we need the proper science before we go and make decisions that are going to affect people’s livelihoods.”
Ucluelet councillor and Chamber of Commerce Office Manager Lara Kemps told the Westerly that the chamber continues lobbying DFO to listen to the community’s concerns and ideas.
“We’re still advocating hard for this. We don’t believe we’ve had any community input so far, so we’re still requesting that and we’re not giving up hope,” Kemps said.
She said DFO’s community input session around the Southern Resident Killer Whale strategy in Ucluelet last month was inadequate as it failed to lay out any scientific reasons for shutting down Ucluelet’s fisheries.
“That’s not enough. Show us the right science. Show us how you came to this and don’t just make an uninformed decision and close our fisheries,” she said. “There’s a lot more things at stake here. So, just do it right. We care about the whales and we care about our livelihood. Let’s work together to work something out.”
Kemps suggested the sportsfishing industry alone brings roughly $7 million into Ucluelet’s economy each year and that losing that industry would have huge impacts.
“It will totally decimate communities like Bamfield. We’re not just talking about Ucluelet here, we’re talking about all our West Coast communities,” she said adding many fishers will migrate from Ucluelet to Tofino, where no closures are expected. “Because they can’t fish here, they’ll be going to Tofino and Tofino is already over-saturated.”
Johns said more community consultations would help Ottawa develop a clearer picture of what is needed and what is at stake.
“The best way to inspire people and inspire communities is to listen to them and include them in the decision making and ensure that they’re properly and adequately resourced. This is how we’re going to see a return of our stocks. That’s the way to benefit everybody,” he said. “I think the government would be wise to create a community-based process, resource the community and develop a plan to help support the critical habitat for the southern resident killer whales, instead of imposing this drastic framework where the community doesn’t really have a say.”
He acknowledged that DFO’s Oct. 31 announcement included a promise to invest $61 million in restoring wild salmon populations, but said the government needs to lay out how that money will be spent and reiterated that the Tofino and Ucluelet hatcheries have not seen an increase in funding for 28 years.
“You’ve got hundreds of volunteers in our coastal communities that have been volunteering to death supporting our fish and getting heavily under-resourced,” he said. “If they just get told that they’re expected to continue to volunteer, under-resourced, and then they can’t even catch the fish swimming right by their communities, it’s going to be hard to motivate those individuals to be really frank…Those are the very people that [DFO] are going to rely on to help bring back the fish.”