Updated: Apr 8, 2021
A call for collective action across industry and conservation
Last week, I journeyed to the Steveston fishing docks to meet Eric Wickham, a commercial fisherman* turned professor. While strolling along the dock, passing boat after boat that was listed for sale, Eric shared his sincere frustration with the presence of bottom trawlers in British Columbian waters. He described these boats and this fishing method as threatening both marine ecosystems and coastal livelihoods. The incredibly destructive and non-selective bottom trawls ravage the seafloor and decimate benthic habitats and creatures. In doing so, they undermine the foundation of marine food webs and contribute to the reduced abundance of marine life.
In addition to causing ecological degradation, Eric pointed out that bottom trawlers affect the livelihoods of non-trawl based fisheries by decreasing the availability of the target fish stocks, and by perpetuating problematic systemic issues amongst Canadian commercial fisheries. To unpack these additional knock-on effects, I reflect on what I learned from a younger fisherman a few weeks ago. Fraser Macdonald described how difficult it is for young people to enter the commercial fishing industry in B.C. due to the initial high capital investment in boats and gear, and the unfortunate concentration of West Coast fishing licenses and quota in the hands of rich investors, some of whom have never set foot on a fishing boat or in Canada (see more here).
Dockside in Steveston, Eric pointed out the sheer difference in size between a bottom trawler and many other fishing vessels, such as salmon trollers and crab and shrimp boats. The bigger the boat the more expensive it is, and Eric estimated that the massive bottom trawler we stood beneath cost around one hundred million dollars – far outside the purchasing capacity of most small-scale fishermen without substantial input from investors.
Finally, there is an even more sinister species of bottom trawler that lurks occasionally in British Columbian waters – the super trawler. These massive boats, many of which originate from the EU, cruise throughout the ocean dragging huge nets that can extend over a mile and are wide enough to fit a 747 jet in their opening. They can stay at sea for weeks at a time, meaning that any fish they catch within B.C.’s waters do not necessarily have to be landed at our ports or contribute to our economy. Unlike countries such as Australia, the Canadian government has not passed any legislation to prevent super trawlers from removing marine life and wreaking havoc in Canadian waters, and I am left to wonder if they have to comply with our fishing regulations at all.
Overall, bottom trawlers represent many things that commercial fishermen seemingly deplore: the boats and licenses are often owned by rich people who do not actually fish, they impair the viability and success of other fisheries through converting good habitat to mush and mud, they non-selectively catch everything in their wake, and the super-trawlers can get away with this damage without even contributing to our local economy.
Given these seemingly obvious negative impacts to commercial fisheries, I asked Eric whether commercial fishermen in B.C. who do not work in trawl fisheries have come together to advocate for the removal of these boats and cessation of this fishing method in our waters. Eric said nope. Beyond grumbling to each other over beers, the small-scale commercial fishing sector has not lobbied for reform.
His response disappointed me but was not altogether surprising. Given the dire state of the industry right now, I can understand that commercial fishermen have enough on their plate without expending additional time and energy on political lobbying. I was reminded of an experience I had last year speaking with a guy who works for a forestry company in the region where I study. When I asked how politically engaged foresters were, he said not very. For the most part, the forestry companies in our region are small, family-run, and occupied with the bottom line. They have minimal opportunity or capacity to engage with politicians, and when they do engage, they tend to do so as individuals rather than as a collective group.
After hearing pretty similar statements from two guys who work in separate but similar resource-based industries, I am left wondering about potential conservation and socio-economic wins that can be gained through collective lobbying. I have to admit that industrial lobbying has a very dirty association in my mind, as I link it to massive oil and gas corporations. However, based on my growing interactions with fishermen and foresters in B.C., it has become clear to me that there are many people within these sectors who would support systemic changes that sustain livelihoods and build resilience in the face of the climate and biodiversity crises, but who have minimal capacity to bring about this change independently.
If we can work together to identify and implement win-win policy changes and adaptation strategies that protect both ecosystems and livelihoods, such as eliminating bottom trawling and banning super-trawlers from Canadian waters, we absolutely should!
Of course, there is a voice in the back of my head that warns about potential perils of multi-sectoral work, such as greenwashing, compromising conservation values, and implementing changes that fail to protect the ocean or livelihoods at all.
Overwhelmingly, however, I feel it is critical to pursue this collaborative and relationship-rich direction, with the end goal of fostering trust and mutual understanding amongst diverse groups so that we can work toward common goals using collective voices.
To learn more about why it is important to end bottom trawling, check out this campaign by Project Seahorse: https://www.projectseahorse.org/endbottomtrawling
*Footnote: Globally, the gender neutral term 'fisher' is commonly used to refer to people who fish. However, within the North American fishing industry the term 'fishermen' is strongly preferred by both men and women who fish. See here for more information.