B.C. fishermen push back against 'unjustified' fishing closures in Port Renfrew

Locals say the Department of Fisheries and Oceans' threat to close a vital area of Port Renfrew’s salmon fishery is based on flawed science, lacks appropriate consultation, and will destroy the coastal community’s economy.

B.C. fishermen push back against 'unjustified' fishing closures in Port Renfrew
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On Tuesday, a small-but-vocal group of recreational fishing advocates gathered to protest outside of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans' (DFO) Victoria, British Columbia office.

The “Save Port Renfrew Rally," largely organized by members of fishing organizations, is one of several growing calls for action against the federal department’s looming decision to close Area 20, a crucial section of the southwest Vancouver Island community’s salmon fishery.

The proposed closure is one of a series of restrictive measures against coastal communities under the guise of protecting the foraging of “at risk” Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW). Critics of the static closures say such action is unwarranted, politically driven, and directed more at appeasing misguided environmental groups than addressing primary threats to the SRKW.

“These whales are in trouble because of pollution, and the government is trying to shut down a sport fishing industry that brings in $3 billion a year to the province of British Columbia,” Mark Roberts, one of the rally speakers, told Rebel News.

Roberts, a seasoned sport fisherman and fish and tackle store owner who serves as the executive chair for the B.C. Fishing Recreation Association (BCFRA), says in over 50 years of sport fishing in the area, he’s only seen the whales around six times.

Fellow BCFRA member Wayne Friesen, who, like Roberts has also been recreational fishing for five decades, also confirmed the lack of SRKWs in Area 20.

Cutting off retention areas that the whales don’t frequent and relying on outdated predictive modelling to do so are two reasons the association is calling on the DFO to listen to the community and take a more balanced approach.

“The people that are on the water know best. Not a bureaucrat in Ottawa who sits behind a desk and has probably never been here before” added Roberts.

Friesen tells Rebel News he believes the DFO lacks honesty and transparency when officials point to outdated predictive modelling to claim the opposite.

“One hundred times over, this is the observation we see on the water,” Friesen said, adding that the DFO is ignoring other studies supporting the “on-the-water observations” of sport fishers and DFO officers, and conclude that the whales prefer to forage in deeper waters.

“It just makes no sense, why would you kill a community when killer whales aren’t even in the area?” Friesen asked.

In February, the president of Port Renfrew's Chamber of Commerce, Chris Tucker, wrote a letter addressed to Liberal Fisheries Minister Diane Lebouthillier.

On behalf of the community, Tucker expressed “profound concerns” over the ministry’s proposed 2024/25 fishing closures, which include Area 20, and the continuation of a nearby Chinook salmon retention Area 21 closure in the Nitinat River.

“The fact that we are even engaging in a discussion that has the potential to close another major area of our fishing grounds is creating great harm to this community,” wrote Tucker. “Many businesses in the community have already taken deposits for 2024, to facilitate fishing charters, and accommodation bookings for this year's fishing season,” he added.

Tucker’s letter went on to describe in detail what the Chamber of Commerce views as an “imminent threat” to the seaside community whose economic vitality hinges on local establishments and recreational fishing, a major tourist attraction and “vital pillar for employment opportunities.”

Based on surveys of restaurants, accommodations and fishing charter operators, Tucker conservatively estimates that recreational charter fishery “injects at least $103,000 per day into Port Renfrew's economy.”

After factoring in additional demographics such as those who use their own equipment and non-fishing visitors who frequent visitor amenities and businesses ashore, Tucker projects the recreational fishing industry’s total impact on Port Renfrew exceeds $26 million per year.

Contrary to what is often communicated by the DFO and amplified by the media as justification behind static closures targeting the sport fishing industry, Tucker claims that various studies show the population of chinook salmon, which SRKW’s feed on almost exclusively, are in abundance and “greatly exceeding levels necessary for these whales to thrive.”

“We strongly urge the DFO to adopt a truly balanced approach that safeguards both our environment and our economy,” Tucker's letter requested in bold.

Both the B.C. Fishing Recreation Association and Port Renfrew Chamber of Commerce are advocating for the DFO position on practices more consistent with that of Washington state, which has fishing areas that run adjacent to that of Port Renfrew along the other side of the Salish Sea.

Instead of forbidding recreational fishing in areas whales don’t frequent, Canada could increase the adoption of “mobile avoidance zones” around killer whales when and if they are present.

“The insistence on relying solely on predictive modelling appears suspect, potentially aimed at misleading the public. This approach seems more aligned with the agenda of the DFO rather than an accurate reflection of the environmental reality,” added Tucker.

A House of Commons e-petition demanding the same changes from the federal government has been initiated by Charles Borg, a federal Conservative Party nomination candidate for Cowichan Malahat Langford, who has garnered over 800 signatories to date. The e-4913 fisheries petition also demands the government halt any plans to close area 20 and open up the nearby Nitinat Lake’s area 21.

Additionally, members of the BCFRA recommend that those who wish to join them in “saving Port Renfrew” from punitive fishing closures join them in writing letters of concern to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans.

Rebel News reached out to Minister Lebouthillier to provide a comment for this article but did not receive a response by the time of publishing.

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