A small fishing boat is moored at a decaying dock next to a crumbling building on stilts.

Photo Credit: A. Davey | Flickr

DFO’s License Buy-Back Could Be a Boondoggle

The reverse auction system could be a race to the bottom

The fisheries union says the license retirement program is not a just transition

Salmon fishers are already having a hard time. The new federal license buy-back plan could make things worse.

The union representing BC salmon fishers has taken aim at the program. It says the program will take advantage of its members when they’re already feeling the pinch of fishery closures and declining stocks.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has targeted $123 million for the voluntary retirement program. At its core, the program offers cash to fishers to get them to sell their licenses and retire from the industry. The hope is that having fewer fishers on the water will reduce pressure on struggling Pacific salmon stocks.

There are about 1,300 commercial licence holders with a troll, gillnet, or seine licence who are eligible for the program.

The funds are coming from the $647 million Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative that’s meant to help salmon fisheries recover from the effects of climate change, habitat loss, and other threats.

But in a December 15 media release, the United Fishermen & Allied Workers’ Union (UFAWU-Unifor) said the program could hurt rather than help fishers.

Union president James Lawson said the cash wouldn’t “come close to compensating” commercial salmon harvesters for the money they invest in licences, vessels, and gear.

But it’s hard to say no to cash when you have none, even when the cash being offered isn’t enough.

“We’re being taken advantage of at our weakest moment,” Lawson said in the statement.

“After waiting for DFO to move forward with the license buy-back since it was announced alongside the massive set of (Pacific) fishery closures in 2021, harvesters subsequently without viable income are desperate for financial relief and will be low-hanging fruit.”

The UFAWU-Unifor also said that the program doesn’t do a good enough job of figuring out which licences will be bought. That means both active and inactive licences could be on the table.

If all that gets sold are inactive licenses, will that really relieve the pressure on salmon fisheries?

DFO has put together a reverse auction system for retiring licenses. But the union said that sets up a race to the bottom. License holders will be bidding to sell their licenses for the lowest price.

That’s especially bad for fishers who have invested their whole lives in the industry.

Active fishers and their families often rely on selling their licenses and vessels to fund their retirement.

According to Lawson, with fewer and fewer commercial fishing opportunities, ”operators have become increasingly desperate.”

They could be ready to settle for less because it’s better than nothing. But that’s not fair.

“This is not a just transition,” he said.