The BC sports fishing industry is a $600 mil annual business and commercial fishing is worth $400 mil. License revenues for the BC government are about $7 mil annually. The commercial sector may complain of favoritism for the private side but all agree that an international limit on the catch is needed.
Once considered secondary to British Columbia’s commercial fishery, the province’s sport-fishing industry has emerged as an important player on the salmon stage–and in the provincial economy. It is easy to see why. Recreational anglers take no more than four percent of the total catch–20 to 25 percent of coho and chinook, the most-valued sports fish–but their activity is now worth more than the commercial side. The federal department of fisheries and oceans estimates that the B.C. sports salmon fishery is worth $600 million a year, the commercial fishery $400 million. And a report prepared for the federal and provincial fisheries departments last year found that a sports-caught chinook is worth more than $670 to the provincial economy compared with only $26 for the very same fish harvested commercially. In addition, angling generated nearly six times as many jobs as commercial fishing. “Premier Glen Clark likes to talk about fishing being at the heart of what British Columbia is all about,” says Gerry Kristianson, spokesman for the Vancouver-based Sports Fishing Institute, an umbrella organization representing the business side of recreational salmon-fishing. “Well, he’s absolutely right–it’s sports fishing particularly.”
Each year, the federal fisheries department issues about 400,000 saltwater fishing licenses in British Columbia, with between 80,000 and 100,000 going to non-residents. Revenues from license fees usually average about $7 million, compared with about $11 million for commercial licenses. But the big money comes from the spinoffs generated by sports anglers–some of whom pay up to $1,000 a day to fish at exclusive remote fly-in lodges–including travel, accommodation and guiding. “The only game in town three decades ago was the commercial fishery,” says Tom Bird, chief of the recreational fisheries division with the federal fisheries department in Vancouver. “Now, suddenly this an important element of the fishery–and growing in importance. That is clearly because of the economic benefits it generates.”
The new influence enjoyed by the sports-fishing community, however, has created friction with the commercial sector. Over the past decade, says Bird, the federal fisheries department has begun to manage the sports fishery much more carefully. Sometimes, the federal department gives priority to anglers in specified areas, a move that angers the commercial side. Bill Otway, the recreational fisheries adviser and ombudsman for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, says: “There is a perception in the commercial fishery that the sports side is taking it all over and that they will be driven out.”
Still, recreational fishermen agree with their commercial counterparts on one significant point: the need for a new U.S.-Canada agreement on catch limits. Last year, a zero-retention, the full-release policy was imposed on endangered chinook off the west coast of Vancouver Island and in the Queen Charlotte Islands. The impact was devastating: visitors canceled in droves. Many sports fishermen blame overfishing by the Alaskan trollers for the chinook crisis.
Now, the situation appears to be improving. Daily catch limits of two Chinooks, which can weigh up to 80 lb., are in effect. “Business is better,” says Dean Strongitharm, vice-president of Oak Bay Marine Group, which, with three marinas and six coastal sports-fishing lodges, is the largest sports-fishing operator in North America. Its facilities, which host up to 45,000 guests annually, are running at about 80-percent capacity. “Things are looking good, but they are tenuous,” says Strongitharm, who says his company has had calls from Americans concerned about the current saber-rattling in the Pacific salmon war. “Adverse reactions to this issue could have an effect.”
John McCulloch, vice-president of Langara Fishing Lodge in Queen Charlottes, agrees. “Business is good, but we’re still digging out of the hole,” said McCulloch, whose lodge opened in 1985 and averages about 2,000 visitors a year, 35 percent of them American. He, too, worries about the negative impact of actions like the blockade of an Alaskan ferry in Prince Rupert by B.C. commercial fishermen. “I can understand their frustration,” he says. “But they may be destroying the very lifeline of the British Columbia economy, which is tourism.” McCulloch, like so many others in the B.C. sports-fishing industry, has begun to pray that this does not become the season that got away.