In the 1980s, in the heart of northern British Columbia,
the small town of Prince Rupert was booming.

The harbour bustled under a constant din of boat motors, screeching gulls, and the whine of fish processors running at full tilt.
The smell of success, in the form of diesel fuel and fish scraps, permeated the salty coastal fog
that enveloped this town of 18,000 residents.

Today, almost a quarter of the town is gone and the harbour is all but silent under the heavy mist, save for some sailboat halyards chiming on a gentle swell. Fishing boats are still tied here, but many sit listless and idle for much of the year. An unlucky few haven’t seen open water in ages and slowly crumble into the sea. Although this is a common story on BC’s coast, hope still lives – in each quiet town, there remains a desire for sustainable fisheries to rejuvenate the local industry whose doorstep, whose shoreline, they fall on.

Quotes like these throughout the report offer insights from fishermen who have seen a changing tide in BC's fisheries.

A few lucky boats remain. The boats - and their captains - represent a fast-fading set of knowledge and expertise. Through a combination of skill, luck, and sheer determination, they have weathered the many challenges that have driven their colleagues and friends out of the industry.

Some of these industry stalwarts shared their perspectives on the changes and challenges they have weathered over the past four decades. Their stories paint a picture of life in a struggling - yet resilient - industry.

 

I started fishing with my parents as a little boy.

I was a baby on the boat, and I started – my dad hired me out on the seine boat to be skiffman, I think I was 11 years old.

I liked the idea of being my own boss.

I wanted to - I guess I felt the same way a lot of people who run their own businesses feel, and that’s that they would like to build something.

I started fishing with my father when I was 11.

We just went out as father-son. I’ve been earning money from fishing since I was 16. I’ve fished every year up until now and I’m 58. So that would be 42 years.

 

The commercial fishing industry is pressured on all sides by environmental, economic, political, and cultural shifts. In response, managers continue to restructure the fishery and put new policies into place. But have these regulations met their goals? What impacts have they actually had – both on the health of fish stocks and the viability of fishermen?

INTERACTIVE: The percent decline of commercially licensed fishermen (green) and fishing boats (blue) in BC since 1988. Hover over the dots to learn about policy changes that have contributed to this decline.

Sources: DFO Statistics and Integrated Fisheries Management Plans.

BC’s commercial fisheries have seen drastic changes.

Since the 1980s, BC’s commercial fleet has shrunk to less than 40% of its former size. Over the same period, the number of commercial fishermen in BC has dropped to less than a third of what it once was. Fishermen have retired with no one to replace them. As the industry fades away, harbour services in towns like Prince Rupert have been shuttered, with disastrous results for coastal communities.

Individual transferable quotas (ITQs) and other forms of catch shares became popular management tools in the 1990s. Since then, BC has been held up as the golden child of catch shares - proof that the system works.

But does it? With a shrinking industry and increasing poverty in so many coastal communities, does catch share management really work as advertised?

If our fisheries are seen as examples of how to do fisheries management "right," it is our responsibility to make sure they truly are benefitting those who make their livings on the sea.

Next Section: A Rising Tide

The growth of catch shares in Canadian fisheries managment.