Tackle shops in Prince George are joining protesters throughout B.C. in the fight against strict halibut quotas with a petition that has already netted dozens of names.
Federal quota allotments that limit sport fishermen to one halibut per day, and the threat of an early closure of the halibut season are hurting the sport fishing industry, say local angler advocates.
The petition, started three weeks ago by the B.C. Sportfishing Halibut Coalition under the banner, "The Great Canadian Halibut Heist," points out that 436 commercial fishermen hold 88 per cent of the quota of halibut stocks for 2011.
The other 12 per cent is set aside for Canadian sport fishermen and fishing charter outfitters. The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans introduced the 88/12 ratio in 2003.
"The sport fishermen feel that the halibut stocks on the Pacific Ocean belong to B.C., not just the commercial fishermen," said Marty Ashfield, owner of Bon Voyage Sports in Prince George.
"They're skewing it toward commercial fishermen and leaving the sport fishermen out, and it's really not a fair deal."
In 2003, the limits on the sport take for halibut was two per day and four in possession for each recreational fisherman. Last year, they were cut in half. The coalition wants its quota to be more in line with that of the U.S. states, which give sport fishers 20 to 36 per cent of the catch.
The timing of the petition, launched right before the federal vote, was meant to make halibut an election issue, said Ron Wakita, chair of the Kitimat Halibut Allocation Task Force, which represents recreational anglers, private charter tour operators and fishing lodges.
"It's caught the attention of the Conservative party, and we're hoping the politicians got the message," Wakita said. "People are not pleased with how the Canadian resource is being managed. It's destroying an industry."
Dick Harris, the re-elected Conservative MP for Cariboo-Prince George, is chair of the party's B.C. caucus and said it will be one of his priorities to fix the problems now affecting the halibut industry.
One of the policy changes he is considering would change the sport fishing allotment to six to 12 halibut per year, per person, rather than a daily catch limit.
"I've heard that from a number of people and I like the idea," said Harris. "My personal preference would be that it's an annual quota where you get your tags and if you catch them all in one weekend, good for you. A lot of halibut fishermen can only make it out once a year."
Part of the problem, Wakita said, is that halibut commercial fishermen who hold the quotas do not have to be on board the boat while their quotas are being taken, unlike East coast fishermen.
The sport fishing season for halibut opened March 1, instead of the usual Feb. 1, with no closing date set. That worries tour operators, who fear halibut season will close in July, during the height of the tourist season, instead of Dec. 31.
Sport fisherman can increase their allotments if they lease quota from commercial operators. However, Wakita said there are no set rules or controls over the cost of those leases and predicts prices will be driven up if individuals are forced to compete with commercial fishermen for leased quotas.
"I'm surprised they've gotten away with it this long," Wakita said. "This has been going on for eight years, but because the halibut biomass is in a low phase right now, which closes the sport sector in July or August, that's incited the anger of most anglers."
The lack of firm closing date for sport fishing cripples the ability of tour operators to make long-term bookings and the implications of that are being felt in Prince George, said Ashfield.
"We sell saltwater licences and our clientele comes from all over B.C., including huge amounts from Alberta and people have been coming in here and they're saying it's simply not worth going out there anymore."