Commercial crab fishermen in British Columbia fear that changes to the way they can fish for Dungeness crab off the west coast of Vancouver Island could push some small, family operations out of business.
Dungeness crab fishing opened for the season on Friday, which normally sees more than 30 smallholders head to the waters off Tofino to harvest the seafood. They are worth around $20 each and are popular at markets too distant than China.
This year however, crab fishermen like Jason Voong, 33, may not be able to harvest enough crabs to stay in business following changes announced by the federal government in December to reallocate half of the licenses available in the area to local First Nations.
Voong has been catching crabs with his father since he was a child. Her father emigrated to Canada from Vietnam as a refugee in the mid-1980s.
“Honestly, I lost sleep over it,” he said. “I fully support, and the fishers support reconciliation, it’s just a process that’s wrong right now the way DFO has treated the commercial fleet and the five nations.”
Voong is referring to what some describe as a heavy-handed approach by the federal government to comply with an April 2021 B.C. Court of Appeal decision, which upheld parts of a 2018 decision by the Supreme Court of British Columbia regarding First Nations fishing rights.
She concluded that Canada’s regulation and management of regular commercial fisheries unjustifiably infringes the rights of First Nations to harvest and sell fish.
The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) said the appeal required it to reassess the crab trap allocation for the five nations of Ahousaht, Ehattesaht, Hesquiaht, Mowachaht/Muchalaht and Tla-o-qui-aht in the waters off the west. coast of Vancouver Island, known as Area E.
This means a reduction in commercial crab pots to be phased in this year and next.
“This is intended to align with the development of Five Nations fishing capacity and to support an orderly transition of fishing access from commercial to commercial fishing based on Five Nations rights,” said said a DFO spokesperson in an email to CBC News.
Fishermen like Voong – who is a representative of the BC Crab Fishermen Association – say they are not against the reassignment, but are unhappy with the way it is being implemented.
“We are suffering a significant and immediate economic loss because of what the ministry decided without consulting us or talking to us properly,” he said.
Wickaninnish (Clifford Atleo), the chief negotiator for the Five Nations, agrees that the federal government has fumbled the deployment of the reallocation by not consulting properly with commercial fishermen or the Nations.
He said he learned from the association in December that the changes were coming for April 1 and sympathizes with their plight.
“It’s not fair to these guys who are fishing for a living,” he said. “Can you imagine telling a regular worker that his pay is going to be cut in half? That’s exactly what they did to those guys. And that’s not fair.”
Wickaninnish also said it would take time, possibly years, for nations to acquire the necessary boats and equipment to be able to fish the additional traps that have been allocated.
Voong said a crab boat, traps, gear and the federal permit cost about $1.5 million.
Ottawa said it is working on mitigation measures to ease the transition, such as buying out crab licenses from commercial fishermen, which can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“DFO takes the concerns of crabbers seriously,” said the department’s spokesperson.
Both Voog and Wickaninnish said commercial fishers and First Nations have a good working relationship, want to continue to support each other, and have requested meetings with DFO.
Local NDP MP Gord Johns said the federal government spent $19 million fighting First Nations in court over the offence, and should have used that money to room to support the transition.
“This government needs to understand that Canada has to bear the cost of reconciliation rather than just these working crab fishers,” he said.
“We need the government to act quickly to fully compensate the affected crab fishermen.”