09/08/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 11/07/2012 05:12 EST

Recreational halibut season ends in B.C.; tensions simmer between fishermen

VANCOUVER - Away from the country's kitchens, where beer-battered fish and chips, kabobs and fish tacos are prepared, tensions are simmering between commercial and recreational fishermen over Pacific halibut.

The recreational halibut fishing season closes Sunday and the sector, which represents anglers, resorts and lodges, wants more time and a greater share of the fishery, arguing its too valuable to small coastal communities.

But the commercial sector, with 435 licence holders that will likely be able to fish into November, wants a stable allocation, arguing it practises an environmentally responsible fishery that's strictly monitored, provides food, and generates significant economic impact.

One of those commercial fishermen has launched a federal court action, asking a judge to overturn a government decision that gave more fish to the recreational sector this year.

"I think it's a difficult relationship," said Vicky Husband, a member of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society who has observed the fishery and the relationship between the two sectors.

"I wish it were more respectful because I think there are real solutions."

Pacific halibut are the largest flatfish in the world and live along the north Pacific's continental shelf. They weigh as much as 300 kilograms and reach 2.7 metres in length, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

During the past decade, the department said on its website, "commercially harvestable" halibut populations have declined by about 50 per cent. However, there are a high number of young halibut currently in the water, meaning the total biomass is believed to be "near an all-time high."

Harvest levels are determined every February by the Canada-U.S. International Pacific Halibut Commission, said Dan Bate, a fisheries' department spokesman.

After First Nations' food and ceremonial needs are determined, the department splits the fishery between the commercial and recreational sectors, he said.

On Feb. 12, 2012, Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield awarded 85 per cent of the catch to the commercial sector and 15 per cent to the recreational sector. It was a hike of three per cent for the recreational sector.

Bate said the recreational season, which opened March 1, closes Sunday "as catch estimates indicate the recreational fishery allocation will be achieved by early September."

Martin Paish, a general manager at a resort owned by the Oak Bay Marine Group, said he would have liked to see the season run until late October because the highly prized fish draws tourists to rural communities.

When the season ends, he added, fewer tourists visit, and that has a big impact on communities like Ucluelet, B.C., located on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

In Ucluelet, he said, one resort provides as many as 150 jobs, employing about 10 per cent of the community.

Paish said communities like Ucluelet never see a commercial halibut boat, and the commercial sector exports as much as 85 to 95 per cent of its catch.

"DFO has decided that providing halibut to 400 or so quota holders in the commercial fishery, most of whom don't fish, is more important than providing it to the recreational fishery and supporting all the jobs in small coastal communities where we operate," he said.

Last February, B.C.'s Sport Fishing Institute argued on its website the fishery is no longer treated as the common property resource of Canadians but as a private business because of who owns the fish.

Up the coast in Tahsis, B.C., Jon Falavolito, owner and operator of the Westview Marina and Lodge, said he'd like to see as much as 25 per cent of the fishery go to the recreational sector.

"It's just not a bunch of people saying, 'I want to catch more fish.'"

He said small fishing resorts like his help keep local gas stations and coffee shops going.

"In the small villages up and down the west of Vancouver Island ... there's people's livelihoods on the line."

But Chris Sporer, manager of the Pacific Halibut Management Association, which represents about half of the 435 commercial licences in B.C., doesn't want to see his sector lose more fish and argues for a stable allocation.

Commercial fisherman Graeme Malcolm, an association member, has requested a judicial review, arguing in court documents that his quota lost value after Ashfield's announcement.

While he won't comment on the case, Sporer said commercial boats provide food to consumers, are strictly monitored by observers, and contribute significantly to the economy.

"Most ordinary Canadians can't afford thousands of dollars to spend a few nights in a luxury fish lodge," said Sporer.

"The only way they access the fishery resources that they own is through the commercial fishery. We give them access to the fish. We supply the public with food."

To ensure boats don't surpass their commercial quota, Sporer said the fishery is monitored by video cameras, bought and installed by the fishermen, and independent monitoring companies.

Because of its efforts, he noted, the fishery was certified by the Marine Stewardship Council in 2009.

"What do Canadians want from their fisheries? Do they want fisheries that meet conservation objectives, that are well monitored? Where the industry is economically viable, it can pay for the monitoring, it can contribute to it.

"Or do they want fisheries that can't meet conservation objectives, constantly exceed their harvest limits, they're not contributing anything, they're not paying a licence fee, they're not paying any of the costs of monitoring?"

The Sport Fishing Institute has taken issue with that criticism, arguing on its website that federal fisheries officials have for the past five years "placed a very high level of confidence in the quality of the recreational fishery's catch data."

Watching the debate is Husband, who notes that while she has picked a side, she recognizes everybody has to share the resource.

Husband said she'd like to see the recreational sector become more accountable, adding that everything the commercial sector catches is accounted for.

"We don't know what's thrown overboard," she said of the recreational sector. "We don't know what else is caught, we don't know what other ground fish are caught or whether there are rock fish being caught. We don't know.

"There is some reporting but it's very thin, and we know that DFO doesn't have the resources to have people on the ground to know what's going on."