Commercial fishermen on the west coast of Vancouver Island are grappling with a difficult choice this month after Canada’s federal fisheries minister announced a licence retirement program for B.C.’s chinook salmon fishery. About 18 of those fishermen are Nuu-chah-nulth. All are members of the Area G Troll fleet targeted by the first phase of the program.

The retirement program is part of a two-year, $ 28.5-million strategy designed to reduce harvests in the commercial salmon troll fishery. The strategy also includes an initiative to modernize the Department of Fisheries and Ocean’s salmon allocation framework and funds to support economic development on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. It’s part of the chinook chapter of the Pacific Salmon Treaty, which was renewed by Canada and the United States in December 2008.

But neither the program nor the strategy is proving popular in Nuu-chah-nulth communities.

“First of all, it’s all taxable, so even if you were able to get $100,000 for your licence, the government would take thirty or forty thousand dollars,” says Errol Sam, one Nuu-chah-nulth fishermen who received the government’s retirement package in the mail. “Then you have to deduct any existing debt, which many people have in business, and think about how you can survive in the future. When you look at what’s left over, it’s probably not a heck of a lot.”

For Sam, who has been active in the commercial fishery for more than twenty years, there are alternatives to licence retirement. “We know there’s a need for a reduction now, but we don’t know what will happen with those stocks in the future. They might rebound…Could we not have done what they call a licence bank, where the government purchases the licenses and puts them in a bank while the stocks rebound?”

NTC President Cliff Atleo was part of an advisory group that recommended scenarios to DFO to help mitigate the losses faced by west coast fishermen under the renewed Pacific Salmon Treaty. Retiring licences was not one of them.

“We proposed real mitigation, and provided a lifeline for those licences to stay alive, just barely, that would last the ten years. It was a well thought-out plan, fully consultative in terms of the players and licence holders. But it was totally ignored, because it fell outside of DFO interest,” Atleo says.

For Atleo, retiring Area G licences is just one more nail in the coffin of a fishery that the government abandoned in favour of other industries long ago. These industries include fish farming.

“When you see the reduction of budgets that are supposed to be looking after our stocks…when you see the loss of local officers that used to be stationed in Tofino to look after our area, you know what’s going on,” Atleo says.

Instead, Atleo and other members of the advisory group, which included Uu-a-thluk Program Manager Don Hall, and members of the West Coast Aquatic Management Board, looked at the big picture. “Our recommendations were about not giving up on the west coast stocks, but about looking at things positively, and saying ‘we’re going to rebuild,’” Atleo says.

During treaty negotiations, Atleo and others calculated it would cost $100 million to rehabilitate west coast watersheds. “But you know what?” he adds. “If we did that, the long-term investment would be immeasurable. Then we’d be talking about real sustainable communities.”

Instead, Nuu-chah-nulth fishermen and others from the Area G Troll fleet have a tough choice to make. After March 2, the government opens the retirement program up to licence holders from other areas.

Says Errol Sam, “It wasn’t clear during the negotiations how things would be delivered and spelled out—now we’re ending up with this…If I choose to take part, will I have any future access? It’s a difficult choice to make for anyone.”