Access Denied?

Non-resident anglers may be regulated off B.C. steelhead rivers.

  • By: Seth Norman
seth steelhead.jpg

A small and self -serving group with guidance from the BC Ministry of the Environment is trying to drive a wedge in the long, happy and mutually advantageous alliance between the good people of the Skeena Valley and the traveling anglers from around the world who have treasured this resource and taken its side when it has been threatened. Whether they succeed or fail, the BC Ministry of the Environment and the Quality Waters group has much to answer for in this frivolous disruption of people’s lives.
—Thomas McGuane

Hundreds of Canadian businesses with thousands of employees will be crippled or bankrupt if the British Columbia Ministry of Environment (MoE) passes proposed regulations to limit or ban non-resident steelheaders on the Skeena River and its tributaries: Kispiox, Bulkey, Babine, Morice, Skawala; also the Zymoetz (Copper). Frightened stakeholders in the area estimate damage to the local economy at between $35 and $50 million per year, and losses to local property values in the hundreds of millions. They worry already about tax repercussions from lawsuits over alleged contraventions of section 1 and section 15(a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, about international actions claiming violations of Chapter 11, NAFTA.

More bitter still, these Draconian changes have nothing to do with conservation or protecting threatened steelhead runs. Instead, the options presented in a 114 page draft of “Angling Management Plan: Skeena Quality Waters Strategy” (AMP) aim to offer priority access for resident (Skeena Valley) anglers—a total of 113 presumed anglers showed up at 25 meetings held by the MoE—and to insure that selected guides can provide paying customers “a Hi-End…quality angling experience,” on waters partly or completely devoid of non-guided anglers.

More specifically, among the scores of AMP recommendations scheduled for review in January 2009—rules one critic calls “The Ministry’s practice run for the BC Olympics”—are the following.
Non-Resident Alien anglers (NRAs) shall be:

•    Banned from one or more resident-only waters;
•    Banned altogether from fishing two “premier,” Class 2 rivers, unless fishing with select BC guides;
•    Banned from fishing other premier rivers on Saturdays, or both week-end days;
•    Required, unless fishing with select BC guides, to apply in advance for lottery tickets that would permit winners to purchase licenses for one eight day period, valid on (the only) river they may fish at this time, regardless of conditions;
•    Banned from fishing property they own on premier rivers unless accompanied by a select BC guide, or in possession of a winning lottery ticket with the eight-day and other restrictions described above.

“They will bankrupt us,” declares a Skeena lodge owner, anonymous here for fear of retaliation. “That’s why they kept us off the ‘Working Committees’ that came up with these options using the MoE ‘toolbox.’ That’s why the committees kept everything secret, until somebody leaked the draft just before the end. Nobody will travel thousands of miles and spend thousands of dollars to put up with rules like these…We’ll go bankrupt and the Ministry knows it.”

As evidence of the MoEs agenda, locals point to the AMP process, as revealed in the document produced. While the draft repeatedly insists all stakeholders had a chance to “offer feedback” to a “transparent” process—and expends hundreds of words suggesting mostly non-resident anglers will object to new regs—it acknowledges that, with the exception of a dozen guides and outfitters selected by MoE, no representative of any steelhead -dependent business was allowed to join the three Working Committees that would propose all changes. (Nor was anyone from the First Nations—roughly 70 percent of the local population.) Instead, MoE-picked members were “expected to represent all interests, not just those immediately around the table, but those in the community who were not sitting at the table— primarily from the tourism, accommodation and hospitality businesses...(Members) were supposed to try and focus on issues and interests rather than personal agendas and points-of-view.” (Emphasis added.)

Supposedly, that happened. At least according to Minister of Environment Barry Penner, responding to a May, 2008 letter from a retired community development consultant. “Ministry staff have assured me that the outcome of the QWS [AMP process] has not been pre-determined and that they have taken every opportunity to ensure that all potentially affected individuals have been given the opportunity to participate in the AMP development process.” (*See footnote below.)

Others—thousands of others—remain unconvinced. One of these is R.S. Hooten, a retired BC Ministry of Environment fisheries biologist, who argues a related position in a document he sent to the MoE.

“The process by which draft AMPs have been generated is far from adequate or fair. MOE has committed to a strategy…that has no hope of representing the interests of the majority of those who know and love the magnificent Skeena country or those whose livelihoods depend all or in part on it.”

No hope….

Unless the more dire recommendations are rejected—before more damage is done.

But damage has been done—by cancelled bookings, angry words, injured relationships and months of fear—“this frivolous disruption of people’s lives.” For stakeholders, that begs questions:

Why? What was the MoE thinking? Given the potential destruction to Canadian businesses, the loss of jobs—and the MoE’s oft-repeated insistence that it will not implement regulations that will negatively impact one of BC’s weakest economies? Given the losses contemplated by Canadian and NRA property owners, and to both BC and Federal agencies from lawsuits these owners will file against them? Given that all stakeholders, save perhaps members of the MoE, believe commercial angling plays a major role in creating crowding by killing off early steelhead season steelhead runs—and that illegal guides, and threats posed by lumber and extraction-industry issues, are far more important to these fisheries and fishers who use them?

What is the point here?

Since the leak of the proposed AMP regulations, stakeholders from Skeena and around the world question are questioning the entire AMP process; and some, its motives.

“Incompetence,” insists a Skeena activist who has spent decades fighting for that river. “I know people on both sides. We’re talking administrative incompetence. Bureaucratic incompetence—the wrong facilitator…maybe the greed of a few people on a Working Committee—but not all of them, for sure. (The AMP) was all wrong from the beginning…bad data, limiting the committees to those MoE toolboxes…I took one look and stayed out of it.”

To incompetence, another Skeena stakeholder adds bias from a MoE section head “known to make a few anti-American remarks,” who “lies, lies, lies to our faces.” She alleges far more substantial conflicts of interest at committee level. (For one, MoE allegedly filled five of seven positions with a guide, his employees, a cousin, and an out of area friend, two of whom were literally “parachuted” into a meeting from which qualified local (and competing) guides were excluded…

A U.S. angler suggests the MoE remains angry at NRAs for their influence in conflicts involving Prince Rupert fisheries, among others.

All possibilites.
There is another: that the allies here—NRA steelheaders, and steelhead-dependent Canadian businesses—are not merely victims of a flawed MoE process, but the targets.

The same stakeholders facing devastation actively supported First Nation and Canadian conservationists in a (so far) successful fight against putting fish farms on the Skeena. They fought again, helping conservationists and First Nation protestors stop (so far) Royal Dutch Shell’s coal -bed methane exploration in that river’s Sacred Headwaters.

NRAs contributed—politically and through donations to these, especially to the campaign that stopped Shell in 2006—the year MoE re-opened the dormant AMP process.

The same allies questioned and may oppose construction of a $4.5 billion segment of pipeline through the area, a project of the American giant Enbridge, Inc. In 2006, Enbridge temporarily abandoned this effort. On November 4, 2008, Enbridge set up two new Skeena-area offices.

FOOTNOTE: *Minister Penner reiterated this position in a phone interview for this article on November 21: “Every stakeholder had a chance to be heard, one way or the other.” But he also promised that, given “issues” around representation, he had already ordered his staff to “fix problems” in the AMP, and return with “a new (AMP) draft in 2009.” Shortly thereafter, he excused himself from our interview to address the BC legislature. In an interview several hours later, MoE Regional Manager Tom Bell asserted that the only “new” draft of which he was aware was a second originally scheduled for the AMP process. Bell acknowledged that “Draft II” will be constructed by the standing Working Committees, absent, again, any representatives from steelhead-dependent stakeholders. “We don’t even bother to contact the (Skeena area) MoE,” insists one of these. “They bury our questions. We’re going straight to Minister Penner, and the Minister of Tourism, and the Premier. We’re going to find out why this happened, what’s happening, and we’re going to demand that start over from the beginning. What other choice do we have?”

Author’s Note: The contact information for the Ministers of Tourism and Environment, also the Premier, may be found below. But please keep this in mind:

At every turn of this investigation, I found misleading declarations that it was mainly NRAs—by implication, angry, ugly Americans in particular--who object to the changes in regs that will devastate Canadian businesses. This message resonates in BC for some very good reasons—like softwood tariffs. But ugly is as ugly does: Any who address these issues would be wise to acknowledge these rivers are not ours; to ask hard-edged questions politely; and to recognize that any response may be offered as evidence in Canadian courts of public opinion.  .

Honourable Gordon Campbell, Premier
[email protected]
Phone:250 387-1715;  Fax:250 387-0087
PO Box 9041
Victoria BC

Honourable Barry Penner, Minister of Environment and Minister responsible for Water Stewardship and Sustainable Communities
[email protected]
Phone: 250 387-1187 Fax: 250 387-1356
PO Box 9047
Victoria BC
V8W 9E2
Honourable Bill Bennett, Minister of Tourism, Culture and the Arts [email protected]
Phone: 250 953-4246; Fax: 250 953-4250
PO Box 9071
Victoria BC
V8W 9E9

Seth Norman lives in Washington State. He writes the “Books” column for Fly Rod & Reel.