Prawnfisher reflects on industry changes

prawns_darren
Prawnfisher Darren Bolton is easily recognizable in Powell River

“When I got into it, prawns were sold on the corner. There was no trap limitation: some guys fished 1000 traps. Others were fishing part-time, or supplementing with salmon fishing in winter.”

At that time, he says, there were approximately 100 holders of prawn-fishing licenses. In the meantime, however, salmon fishing was taking a hit, with the result that more and more people were clamouring for a prawn license.

“Fishers who had never fished prawns opened a big can of worms. DFO [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] ended up creating 150 to 160 more licenses. That’s how it ended up crunched into a 50 to 60 day fishery, when it had originally been nine months.”

In Darren’s opinion, there are “way too many licenses and traps.”

Another challenge arose in 2009—ironically, a banner year for prawns according to Darren. 

“No one saw it coming. Halfway through, we had caught as many prawns as in the regular season.”

While the stunning catch represented a windfall for fishers and buyers alike, there were unfortunate repercussions.  “That year [2009] was so incredible and healthy that DFO extended the season. However, if you have an extension and only one market [Japan], it becomes glutted, resulting in a market loss.”

This, unfortunately, resulted in a lowball price in 2010, which also happened to be a low-production year. By the time Darren paid his deckhands and bills, there wasn’t a lot of profit left.  The following year, 2011, was the year of the tsunami. With Japan buying 90 to 95% of the production, this was devastating.

And still production continued to drop.

“Last year [2012] was the shortest season in history. In the past, prawns were so abundant. But the ground could not sustain that amount of fishers, so consequently people had to find other places to fish. It hasn’t bounced back since 2009.”  

Part of the problem, as he reiterates, is the sheer number of licenses. “Those licenses have remained in the same hands for a lot of years and have become a valuable piece of property. Since not everyone can afford to buy one, they’re leased out.”

Darren would like to see a buy-back program similar to that done in the past with salmon licenses. “What they’re doing now is buying them back then re-awarding them. I believe they should be turned in.”

While he laments the number of licenses, Darren applauds other changes, such as the increase in the nets’ mesh size. “Prior to that, there was zero escapement and we were bringing up juveniles. The prawns came back ten-fold as a result of that change.”

A maximum volume size for traps was another positive change.  “It gives everyone an equal amount of fishing power.

DFO scientists were also able to identify the times when prawns were egg-bearing. Now, no fishing is permitted during those periods.

Electronics also ushered in a new era. “When I started,  we used our own landmarks. Today we’re using the best electronics, traps and bait,” he says, recalling the days when fishers had to catch their own bait, mainly dogfish. Today’s bait is a combination of pellets and fish oils.

“In all, he says, we’re very good at what we do, very efficient.”

Darren sees the industry as an important contributor to the economy of Powell River.  “We’re able to employ a number of people. Each boat has a captain and two deck hands who receive a percentage of the catch.”

He admits to being perplexed by the industry’s reliance on a single buyer. “The Japanese are just turning around and selling it to the rest of the world.” It begs the question, why can’t we do the same?

Despite the drawbacks in recent years, Darren is hopeful that the industry will continue to provide a living for Powell River fishers. “Prawns are so resilient,” he says, “The same ground, fished hard, will come back after two to three years. You will find them in 50 ft. of water or 1000 ft. of water. A prawn doesn’t have to go up a river to spawn. Depending on food conditions, they do very well. If left alone, the prawns will bounce back.”

 

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