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(DV) Petersen: Whose Salmon?







Whose Salmon?
by Kim Petersen
September 26, 2005

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Salmon Wars: The Battle for the West Coast Salmon Fishery
by Dennis Brown

Harbour Publishing    

1-55017-351-0 · $25.95 · Paperback
6 x 9 · 408 pp · May 2005


Why is there a “war” for salmon instead of co-operation to share in the harvesting of what should be a sustainable resource?


In his book Salmon Wars: The Battle for the West Coast Salmon Fishery, Dennis Brown examines and chronicles the battles for sharing the salmon catch between corporations and fishermen [1], the US and Canada, as well as First Nations fishermen and commercial fishermen. Brown expresses concern for the working fisherman. This progressive tendency is expected as Brown has a varied background in salmon fishing, coming from a long line of fishermen and having worked as a union representative and government advisor.


Much of his book details attempts to renegotiate a Canada-US Pacific Salmon Treaty on how to share the anadromous fish that refuse to confine themselves to national waters. The treaty negotiations were marked by strident disagreements between neighbors. Canadian fishermen are upset that US fishermen are allegedly taking Canadian salmon.


The notion of Canadian salmon versus American salmon is intriguing. From another viewpoint, the fact that people were living on the Pacific coast and harvesting the salmon before Canadians and Americans throws into doubt this notion of state-ownership of salmon.


 Pacific salmon accounts for a large portion of the caloric intake of west coast Original Peoples. Brown recognizes the historical relation of Original Peoples with salmon going back 9,000 years.


Nonetheless, although the oxymoronic province of “British Columbia” (BC; How else might one regard a largely unceded expanse of land claimed as a Canadian province by the colonizers and designated British in the execrable honor of an Italian-born-and-raised Spaniard who precipitated a genocide of the Original Peoples?) usurped the right of Original Peoples to determine their own catch limits and set the scenario whereby “major abuses” might occur within an allocation system that apportions salmon for Original Peoples.


Brown contends that the leadership of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union (UFAWU) supports “native rights” without going into specifics. But “major abuses” led union rank-and-file members to pressure the union leadership to oppose the allocation program. Brown while expressing sympathy for First Nations fishermen never dealt with how settler fishermen assumed rights to any of the fishery or rights that might even supersede the rights of First Nations fishermen.


Brown’s stated aim, however, is toward an equitable sharing of the salmon.


Governmental ministries, however, were imposing a neoliberal plan to commodify the salmon fishery by culling the salmon fleet and introducing an individual transferable quota system (private ownership that entitles the holder to a percentage of the total allowable catch in a fishery). As Brown notes, this possessive individualism is antithetical to the traditional First Nations concept of communal sharing. The end result was the introduction of corporate ownership into the salmon-fishing industry.


The quota system was described as encouraging the rise of “armchair fishermen … who can sit back and collect a personal resource rent by leasing their licenses.”


Nova Scotia professor Dan MacInnes warned about the privatization of the fishing industry, drawing on the east coast debacle “rooted in fishing practices that have raped and pillaged ocean resources … government mismanagement … that controlled the rape … rooted in greed and political deal making.”


But determining allowable catch totals for the salmon resource is far from an exact science. Given the speculative state of science in accurately determining the size of salmon runs, determining equitable shared allocations was difficult. For this, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) comes in for much censure, as do the federal fisheries’ ministers. [2]


Canada’s management of the fisheries is rather unsparkling -- the crash of the Atlantic cod fishery being a startling testament to government mismanagement amid commercial exploitation.


Despite DFO’s ineptness at calculating spawning runs, it nonetheless attributed low spawning runs to commercial fishermen although high water temperatures and an excessive number of spawners have also been identified as causal factors. Agonizingly for fishermen, some experts contended that not enough salmon had been caught. The counterintuitive implication is that if DFO had allowed a larger catch by fishermen then more salmon would successfully have spawned. This is referred to as an “overescapement” of salmon -- a curious term. It suggests that salmon are reliant upon some outside force (for example, commercial fishermen) to cull their numbers to achieve maximum spawning efficiency. Brown notes that environmentalists reject this argument.


DFO’s corporate bias includes the promotion of the salmon-farming industry that has further stressed the environment and wild salmon, impinging on the viability of the commercial fishery.


The fishermen pay the price, especially the “little guy” fisherman who is increasingly an “endangered species.”


Brown outlines the marginalization of working fishermen and the creeping corporatization of the BC fishing industry with government collusion. He describes the apparently right-wing orchestrated ouster of a social democratic BC premier, Glen Clark, over a low-cost patio deck. Clark’s error was his willingness to support the tiny political constituency of the commercial fishermen. Clark raised the ire of some people when -- in support of the commercial fishermen -- he threatened to cancel the provincial lease on the torpedo testing range used by the US military at Nanoose Bay on the east coast of Vancouver Island. Extraordinarily, the federal government stepped in and took over the base territory: “the first hostile expropriation of provincial land in Canadian history.” [3]


Ostensibly, some large interests are involved in the play for salmon. Jack Nichol, president of the UFAWU proffered, “We believe that the fisheries are being sacrificed to other resource developments.”


To distract from other competing interests, the government set out to divide fishermen. Federal Fisheries Minister Romeo Leblanc imposed a wedge between First Nations fishermen and non-Indigenous fishermen when he spoke of using the fisheries as “a springboard for Native economic development.” UFAWU business agent Bill Procopation warned of attempts at “a fratricidal, race-oriented split in the fishing industry.”


Brown expresses astonishment at a proposal to allocate an “astounding” 43.6 percent of the total catch to First Nations fishermen. Brown sees this as based on an excessive annual consumption of salmon by First Nations. Implicit in Brown’s objection is that First Nations either shouldn’t be commercially selling their catch and/or that settler fishermen have some right to a greater percentage of the catch.


Not unexpectedly, the media has portrayed the fishermen as at fault in any stock depletion. “Conservationists” targeted fishermen although environmental destruction was primarily blamed for the drastic drop in salmon run numbers.


DFO ordered closures on the pretext of protecting the salmon runs. The closures did not always extend to the First Nations. Brown describes how “armed protestors” of the Cheam First Nation had defied DFO officers, who Brown fails to mention as armed or not.


In 2003, Cheam spokeswoman June Quipp stated, “It is racial profiling by industry organizations that see the Cheam as competition. [The commercial fishermen] take the majority of the fish and the DFO only listens to them. [4]


Brown writes of a “rancorous debate about the nature of the special rights held by Native people.” [italics added] Special rights? One wonders what these special rights are. Is it the right to be dispossessed of one’s territory? The right to submit to settler law and government? The right to relinquish the right of Original Peoples to harvest what had long been a sustainable resource?


Brown struggles with the question of fairness to Original Peoples’ rights throughout his book. He identifies a dilemma: “how can a democratic union defend the livelihoods of its members while embracing principles of racial equality and justice?”


Brown astutely states, “The question will not be answered so long as we uphold an economic system that promotes competition that rewards a wealthy elite, while Native and non-Native workers take turns in welfare lines.”


Brown quotes cultural anthropologist James R. McGoodwin: “Many fisheries problems are merely a small but connected part of more pervasive problems in the world political and economic order.” Brown proposes greater care of the marine environmental and legislation aimed at economic justice including settlement of First Nations land claims.


Brown’s solution is tepid. For example, he discussed a market-sharing formula to establish a price for sockeye salmon among fishermen and the companies. But why not go straight for a profit-sharing formula? Instead of fishermen being at the behest of the canneries, boat owners, license owners, etc., why do they not invest their money and gain control over the pricing and profits for themselves?


The “salmon wars” are important. Brown contemplates how best to conserve and equitably share the salmon resource. The conservation of salmon is also a concern of the First Nations. Brown also acknowledges that the Original Peoples of BC have suffered harsh injustices. Yet why should the allocation of a resource take precedence over the longstanding grievances of Original Peoples? Why should Original Peoples, in addition to territorial and cultural dispossession, be robbed of their traditional economic and nutritional rights?


Consequently, a principled view must recognize that until justice for the Original Peoples of BC is meted out, the allocation of salmon among groups of fishermen is of lower priority.


Kim Petersen is a writer living in Nova Scotia, Canada. He can be reached at:

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[1] Even women so employed prefer the designation “fishermen” rather than the gender neutral term “fisher.” See Blair Shewchuk, “Men, Women, and Fishers,” CBC News Online


[2] A recent report by an environmental group found, “eight core challenges appear to largely explain ineffective performance on the conservation mandate” of DFO: from “inadequate information; lack of transparency and accountability; insufficient and misallocated budget; political influence; [to] weaknesses in enforcing existing laws and regulations.” See David L. Peterson, Alan Wood, and Julia Gardner, “An Assessment of Fisheries and Oceans Canada Pacific Region’s Effectiveness in Meeting its Mandate,” David Suzuki Foundation, June 2005. N.B. Dennis Brown was among those who sat on a panel instrumental in the preparation of this report.


[3] Although Brown refers to Nanoose Bay as “provincial land,” it is, in fact, claimed by the Nanoose First Nation.


[4] Quoted in Robert Taylor, “British Columbia First Nation targeted by fishing industry,” Indian Country Today, 6 August.

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