Commercial crab harvesters in British Columbia are concerned changes over how they’re able to fish for Dungeness crabs off the west coast of Vancouver Island could push some small, family-run operations out of business.
On Friday, the Dungeness crab fishery opened for the season, which normally sees more than 30 small operators take to the waters off Tofino to harvest the seafood. They are worth around $20 each and popular in markets as far away as China.
This year though, crab harvesters 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 re-allocate 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. His father migrated to Canada from Vietnam as a refugee in the mid-1980s.
“Honestly I’ve been losing sleep over it,” he said. “I fully support, and the fishermen support reconciliation, it’s just a process that is wrong right now the way that 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 abide by a British Columbia Court of Appeal ruling from April 2021, which upheld parts of a 2018 ruling by the B.C. Supreme Court around First Nations’ fishing rights.
It found Canada’s regulation and management of regular commercial fisheries unjustifiably infringed on the First Nations’ rights to harvest and sell fish.
The federal Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) said the appeal required it to re-assess 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.
That has meant a reduction in commercial crab traps to be phased in this year and next.
“This is intended to align with the development of the Five Nations’ fishing capacity and support an orderly transition of fishing access between the commercial fishery and the Five Nations rights-based sale fishery,” said a DFO spokesperson in an email to CBC News.
Fishermen like Voong — who is a representative with the B.C. Crab Fishermen Association — say they are not against the re-allocation, but that they’re upset over how it’s being implemented.
“We are at a significant and immediate economic loss because of what the department has decided without properly consulting and talking to us,” he said.
Wickaninnish (Clifford Atleo), the lead negotiator for the five nations, agrees that the federal government has fumbled the roll-out of re-allocation by not properly consulting with commercial fishermen or nations.
He said he found out from the association in December that the changes were coming for April 1 and sympathizes with their plight.
“It’s not fair to those guys who conduct the fishery as a livelihood,” he said. “Can you imagine telling a regular worker that his pay is going to be cut in half? That’s exactly what they’ve done to these guys. And that’s not fair.”
Wickaninnish also said it would take time, perhaps years, for the 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 licence cost around $1.5 million dollars.
Ottawa said it is working on mitigation measures to help with the transition, such as buying back crab licences from commercial fishers, which can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“DFO takes the concerns of crab harvesters seriously,” said the ministry spokesperson.
Both Voog and Wickaninnish said commercial fishers and First Nations have a good working relationship, want to continue to support one another, and have asked for meetings with the DFO.
The NDP Member of Parliament for the area, Gord Johns, said the federal government spent $19 million on fighting the First Nations in court over the infringement, and should have used that money instead to support the transition.
“This government needs to understand that Canada must bear the cost of reconciliation rather than just these individual working crab fishers,” he said.
“We need the government to move quickly to fully compensate affected crab fishers.”