The Industry

The Powell River Salmon Society (PRSS) is an incorporated non-profit organization (NPO) and has  registered charitable status. We contract to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans under the Community Economic Development Program (CEDP) http://www.pac.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/sep-pmvs/projects-projets/cedp-pdec/index-eng.htm.

Charities are fundamental to the well-being of Canadian society by providing communities with valuable services. There is a growing tendency to see them as providers of services in addition to services offered through government.

They also provide meaning and direction to the lives of many by offering the occasion for individual citizens to work together and involve themselves in their community.  Charities involve the people closest to their communities, those able to act quickly when new needs arise.

Salmon enhancement programs, whether sponsored and funded by the Federal government, Provincial government, or non-governmental organizations, are best seen as interventions in a potentially disastrous scenario – the disappearance of the Pacific Salmon as a significant, sustainable element of the British Columbia coastal ecology.

As the keystone species of the coast, the decline of wild salmon has obvious biological, cultural, and political elements, but it also has important economic consequences.  

At the forefront, at least in terms of visibility and the immediacy of its claims on our attention, are the commercial and sports fisheries.   As a centrepiece of our provincial – and particularly our regional – economy, the commercial fishery has been in decline for the last quarter century.  It is not about to disappear, but rationalization of the fleet, with the resulting reduction in the actual number of vessels involved, as well as the methods employed in catching the fewer fish allotted to the industry, will see further decline before a stable floor is reached.  One must see the commercial salmon fishery as in – at best – a tenuous holding pattern as an economic asset to the province and our region.  And even that holding pattern depends, ultimately, upon a successful combination of conservation and enhancement efforts. 

By contrast, the economic contribution of the sports fishery has grown substantially, and continues to produce new direct and indirect economic benefits for the province and our region.  These are realized in roughly three economic levels or tiers.  At the first level is the importation, distribution, and sale of gear – ranging from basic rods, reels, lures, lines, fish-finders, and down-riggers, to the small vessels that have been developed and refined specifically for salmon fishing.   At the next  level are the guiding, transportation, tourism, and hospitality industries that have been built around sports fishing activity, and which continue to expand.  At the third level are the mechanics, carpenters, electricians, accountants, and administrative staff that are necessary to both the creation and maintenance of the infrastructure upon which the first two levels are supported.

Obviously, all of the economic benefits of the sports fishery depend, ultimately, upon the availability of salmon for the catching.  Although it is beyond the scope of these comments, it is worth asking and attempting to briefly answer a basic question: why is the sports fishery for salmon increasing (with all of its attendant, desirable economic benefits) when all agree that the Pacific Salmon species most prized and sought by that fishery are in decline?  The answer is complex, but the availability of new techniques – the down-rigger and sonar – combined with the exploitation of new regions – the West Coast of Vancouver Island and the North Coast of the Queen Charlottes for example – are certainly a large part of it.  Interestingly, the “new” sports-fishing techniques are actually adaptations of traditional commercial techniques (now made generally accessible by their relatively low cost), and the new regions for their application have been gained by displacing the commercial fleet (a consequence of the growing political and  economic clout of the sports fishers). 

For example, the commercial troll fleet, which has traditionally fished the very productive area around Langara Island at the NW tip of the Queen Charlottes is now restricted to fishing no less that one nautical mile off  its shores.  Several lodges at Langara now deploy literally hundreds of boats with or without guides, and the sports fishers are extremely successful. 

Predictably, all of this has resulted in a greatly increased sports fishery landing of fish, which now actually approaches the reduced scale of the commercial fishery for Chinook and Coho.  This, in turn, means that the sports fishery runs the risk of becoming so effective at catching salmon that it – like the commercial fleet before it – poses a threat to its very foundation, which is a sustainable stock of Pacific Salmon.  In this connection, we note, with sadness, the currency of the term “fishing machine” that is often used to describe the vessels of choice for sports fishers.  This industrial metaphor recalls the very common “war on nature” spirit of many of the names traditionally used on commercial vessels such as “Ocean Aggressor” or “Silver Horde”.   More and more sophisticated machines for killing a dwindling prey are precisely the wrong ethos for the time.

That said, the resource turned to in the hope of managing the “victims of their own success” threat posed by the advancements of the sports fishery, beyond obvious conservation measures, are salmon enhancement programs.  In the Powell River area, sports fishing opportunities have been steadily improving since the scale of the Powell River Salmon  Society enhancement program has increased and fish returns have grown annually.  Although there are only anecdotal sources of evidence available, most of the local sources  – such as the fishing logs maintained by gear outlets and marinas – indicate that the past two years have seen the best fishing for a decade.  This is a very positive contributor to the economic health of our region.

But there is yet another level at which the economic health of the Powell River region is linked to the sustainability of the Pacific Salmon stocks.  Mention was made above of the keystone/iconic character of the Pacific Salmon.   While so hard to find, see, or bring to hand in the ocean, where the elements of their life history and behaviour are very imperfectly known, the anadromous salmon eventually return to their native streams to make themselves spectacularly visible to us as they spawn.  Visible also meant available, which made the salmon a vital anchor for the complex aboriginal cultures of the Pacific coast.   For thousands of years these cultures have developed a remarkable and distinctive art which has been adopted by British Columbia as most expressive of its respect for the natural world and its creatures.   

To imagine the coast is to imagine the salmon, and few images are more evocative of that complex reality than the aboriginal representations of them.   No other species so physically and obviously connects the dots for us between land and water, birth and death, past and present.  And, it should be added, a future the Powell River community believes worth working for.

Evidence of this commitment to the future of the salmon are the (conservatively logged) 17K hours of volunteer labour donated by members of the Powell River Salmon Society over the past year.   That is approximately 9 person years of work, which is absolutely crucial to the tempo, quality, and quantity of our production.   17,000 hours of volunteer labour would be astonishing in most communities, but on the Powell River peninsula, it must be seen against the general tradition of stewardship, volunteerism, and community involvement.

As the population of Powell River has decreased (we rank 7th in growth out of the 8 regional districts tracked in  Appendix A of the Island Economic Trust 2009-11 Strategic Plan, while losing 5% of our population in the period between 1998-2003), the median age of our population has become the oldest of the 8 districts.  This is ordinarily bad economic news, but if we look a little closer, we can see that it provides at least one form of economic promise.

Many retirees are moving to Powell River, typically cashing out of the inflated housing market of the Lower Mainland and acquiring new principal residences on the peninsula.  These relatively wealthy newcomers account for roughly half of the real estate market (at least on the basis of the information gathered from real estate agents) and they see beyond the smokestack of the pulp mill to a small, friendly community that is remarkable for its convenient 30 minute flights to Vancouver, its range of services, its position at the gateway to Desolation Sound, and its cultural assets, of which its greenness – not the Partisan, but the philosophical variety – is an important element.

The fishing opportunities produced by the PRSS are obvious prime contributors to this bundle of assets, but beyond that there are “intangible” aspects of our program that should not be ignored when considering their economic benefits.  We do pump out a lot of fish, but we would not attract and maintain the depth of volunteer support we enjoy if our program was simply focused on getting more fish onto hooks.  PRSS is committed to the restoration of  sustainable  Pacific Salmon stocks, which involves an holistic, systematic approach that is always looking and working beyond our important hatchery operations to the needs of the wild fish. 

The hatchery programs of the coast are a crucial part of this stage of our intervention in the crisis of declining salmon stocks; but if our vision and efforts are limited to the simple expansion of a “put and take” fishery, the genetic diversity of the wild stock will inexorably shrink past a fail-safe point of biological survival.  The hatcheries are mid-wives in the overall program; a limited technology that simply cannot produce sustainability as a simple by-product of larger and larger production of juvenile fish.

So PRSS contributes a large proportion of its physical and human resources to increasing our knowledge base, monitoring and restoring the vital natural spawning and rearing habitat of the wild stocks.   Its ambitious educational programs, and the range of its sustainability vision and work is something like an “ocean view” in the real estate market.  These are, strictly speaking, “intangibles”, but they can be a crucial deal maker.  

Lang Creek may not be the Adams river, but the returning fish of the Fall bring hundreds of families to the site’s viewing positions.  People of the peninsula are proud of the PRSS work, and buy into the spirit of stewardship that makes an easy connection with the area’s general tradition of community involvement.   This, in turn, is one more of the attractions of the Powell River region for retiring persons, and younger professionals looking to exploit the internet as a means of de-coupling their place of residence from the consumers of their expertise.   An economic benefit.