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What is The Sport Fishing Institute of British Columbia?

The average angler often may feel that government agencies and the Department of Fisheries (DFO) make decisions at odds with what they would like to see, or they do not understand the rationale behind those decisions. Thankfully, there are several different organizations that advocate for anglers in British Columbia.

What is The Sport Fishing Advisory Board (SFAB)?

The Sport Fishing Advisory Board (SFAB), established in 1964 by DFO, gathers advice from the sportfishing community regarding all waters and sport fisheries managed by DFO. The official SFAB page is here. As the oldest advisory board in Canada, the SFAB is an important organization that delivers advice, recommendations, and proposals directly from the recreational fisheries sector to DFO. But the SFAB is limited in its ability to advocate for recreational fisheries or raise awareness of issues outside of DFO and the process. Other groups, such as the Public Fisheries Alliance, have used a completely independent and more confrontational approach to advocacy. Another organization, the Sport Fishing Institute of BC (SFI), has chosen an independent-yet-collaborative approach. While all approaches have value, the drawn-out process of working with government is, in many ways, the harder—and often less appealing—method (at least in the author’s opinion). But it is often the more effective way of preserving access to public fisheries for all British Columbians. Since 1980, the SFI has done a lot of the heavy lifting for the sportfishing community in working with the powers that be.

SFI Mission: Promote Enhance, and Protect

The SFI is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting, enhancing, and protecting sustainable sportfishing opportunities in B.C. Their mission statement reads “There are few outdoor activities that involve as many British Columbians as do recreational fisheries, and few have the potential to connect people with the marine and aquatic environment in such a meaningful way as does fishing. “It can be a foundation for strengthening the connection between humans and the environment,” the statement continues. “As the environment and society change it is more important to take steps to protect this heritage and to ensure that respect for our environment and recreational fisheries continues to be an important focus for ordinary British Columbians, visitors, and the federal and provincial governments. The creation of a common vision between governments and the recreational fishing community is a necessary foundation for protecting and maintaining both recreational fisheries and complex marine aquatic environments on which they depend.”

(Photo SFI)

The Economic Value of Recreational Fishing

Recreational fishing is vitally important to many British Columbians. There are approximately 300,000 tidal water fishing licenses purchased in B.C. every year, and close to that number for freshwater. When this is compared to the 39,000 registered hockey players in BC every year, it is clear that fishing is an important part of our culture and a major part of our provincial economy. Recreational fishing brings in $1.1 billion each year and directly supports more than 9,000 jobs in B.C. This works out to around $400 million of British Columbia’s yearly GDP. It is a key economic driver for many of our coastal communities and businesses. It should be noted that this economic benefit is derived by a fisheries sector that annually takes just 15% of the halibut harvest and a similarly low number of the salmon harvested in BC. Because many of the members of the sportfishing industry include small businesses, owner-operator fishing guides, and individuals who enjoy fishing—hailing from locations all along the coast—effectively raising awareness and presenting issues to the public or the government can be difficult. While the SFAB is an effective outlet to gather advice and raise concerns to DFO, organizations such as the SFI are critical to advocating for the rights of recreational anglers and our fisheries more broadly and outside of the DFO process.

Sport caught fish (salmon, halibut rockfish) (Photo SFI)

The SFI’s Origin Story

The SFI was formed in 1980 in recognition of the limitations of the SFAB to advocate and raise concerns regarding sportfishing opportunity and access. The SFAB is funded and governed by DFO and led by two chairpersons: one from the sportfishing community, elected by SFAB peers, and one from DFO, the Recreational Coordinator. Therefore, while critical to recreational fisheries management and an important channel for anglers to provide advice and convey the needs of the sector to DFO, the ability of the SFAB to disagree meaningfully or identify problems with decisions or proposals of the department is limited by the relationship. The idea to create a completely independent organization to represent the interests of the sportfishing community was proposed by Bob Wright, owner of the Oak Bay Marine Group. He passed away in 2013, but the legacy of his work, activities, and influence continues to this day.

Originally from Alberta, Bob fell in love with fishing in B.C. and became involved in the many fishing derbies put on by the Victoria Times Colonist newspaper. He eventually started his own fishing charter company that grew to become the Oak Bay Marine Group. This was a time of change in the Georgia Strait fishing industries. The commercial salmon fleet was growing much larger, with bigger and more technologically advanced vessels. Bob felt that this would cause problems with his beloved sportfishing and decided to get involved on behalf of the industry he’d helped build. The SFI was created to advocate to government and the non-fishing public to achieve these aims. Then in 1981, a sportfishing license was introduced, and the Pearce Royal Commission was set up to examine the economic benefits derived from salmon fishing. The SFI retained Dr. Gerald Kristianson to prepare a submission to the Royal Commission. The outcome of this commission was government recognition that sportfishing was providing a much higher value per fish than commercial fishing. This resulted in large-scale commercial fishing being limited in the Southern Georgia Straight, and Chinook and coho being prioritized for anglers.

After this win, the SFI was dormant for a while. At this time, it was comprised primarily of Oak Bay Marine Group and Langara Fishing Lodge. Then, in 1994, it was suggested to Bob that in order to grow the SFI, he should create an independent organization. While Oak Bay Marine Group was still the primary funder, the organization came to include most of the large, influential companies in the industry. A separate SFI office was set up in Victoria, and an independent executive director, Velma McColl, was hired. From this time on, the SFI progressed as an official, independent advocacy group. Eventually Velma left to take a position with David Anderson, the Federal Fisheries Minister at the time. Tom Bird, recently retired from DFO, took on the role of executive director. This was the point at which the SFI’s method of interacting with the government began to change. Tom was able to leverage his DFO past to begin a more collaborative relationship with regulators.

Bob Wright had always viewed DFO as an adversary, and when he disagreed with their policies, he made his opinion clear. If he was upset with a decision, he would hop on a plane to Ottawa to berate the current Fisheries Minister.

Dr. Kristianson recalls being told by a fired-up Bob, “Pack your bags Gerry, we are going to Ottawa tomorrow!” Sometimes Bob also would have an unflattering political cartoon drawn up, and he would have a copy in hand that he would threaten to publish if the Minister did not reevaluate a particular decision. Longtime SFI member and sportfishing advocate Clyde Wicks recalls that, in the early days, DFO officials who would attend SFI meetings would refer to it as “going into the bear pit.” (Personally speaking, I suspect that Bob Wright would get a kick out of hearing that quote).

A Change in Strategy

With Tom Bird’s hiring, this confrontational approach was gradually phased out in favour of a more collaborative way of working with DFO. Over time, this has led to successful joint projects. At times the SFI has served as a service provider for DFO by managing or performing tasks that could not be accomplished due to budgetary constraints or limited DFO human resources. In doing so, the SFI has helped to affect regulatory change to the benefit of the sportfishing sector. It is important to note that, while working on DFO-funded projects that help advance the interests of the recreational sector, the operations of the SFI remain independent of project funding and are supported by members and the sportfishing community. This relationship of mutual respect and independence has grown over the years. Today the SFI continues to collaborate with DFO on projects and often receives funding specific to a given initiative. This approach ensures that funding received is dedicated to project work and identified deliverables. Because of membership and sportfishing community support, the SFI does not require or ever utilize DFO or government funding to maintain operations. This leaves the SFI free to work on projects independently that are in the best interest of the fishing community.

Tidal Angling Guide Program

Tidal guide netting a salmon. (Photo SFI)

A good example of this is the SFI’s tidal angling guide program. As recently as 2006, there was little regulation regarding being a fishing guide other than to be in possession of a current fishing licence. Transport Canada began to consider what regulations might be needed for small commercial passenger vessels. Of course, this included guided sportfishing boats. Rather than wait for the government to come up with regulations to be imposed on the sector, the SFI chose a proactive approach and worked with guides, lodge operators, DFO, TC, and the SkilledTradesBC (Formerly Industry Training Authority) to develop requirements that would be relevant for the sportfishing community and benefit the industry’s safety and service reputation. This was after a freshwater guiding license program had been created by the Province that some felt was less than ideal. So, when it became obvious that saltwater guides also were going to be regulated, the SFI was able to coordinate an approach designed by saltwater guides for saltwater guides. The Certified Tidal Angling Guides Certification (CTAG), “establishes best practices and standards for saltwater guides in BC ensuring the highest level of customer service and safety standards in North America.” Provincial training credits and insurance discounts are just a couple of the benefits.

CTAG Sticker displayed on guide boats who’ve completed their certification

Into The Future

The SFI also works with DFO to collect catch data for recreational fisheries along the coast. While the saying “good data will never hurt you” is debatable, what is true is that a lack of data often leads to less desirable decisions, implementation of the precautionary principle, and a greater likelihood of unnecessary restrictions. Improving the quality and quantity of data and communication between DFO and anglers led to one of the SFI’s current projects, the Fishing BC app. Historically, DFO would use a combination of recreational catch records available and commercial fishing records to make sportfishing decisions. The idea behind a tidal water phone app is to give anglers an electronic method of recording and submitting catch data directly to DFO.

BC’s Official Tidal / Saltwater Fishing App. Created by the Sport Fishing Institute of BC in partnership with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and supported by the Pacific Salmon Foundation.

While this seems a simple thing, the wheels of government move slowly. In my conversation with SFI Executive Director Owen Bird, he explained that the project has been underway since 2013 and includes 7 years of encouraging DFO to take steps to change one word in regulations—to have “recorded in ink” changed to “recorded permanently.” This small but essential change was important to allow for digital licences, available since 2010, to be a legal alternative to paper licences. In 2018, DFO made the necessary wording adjustments and added requirements for recording catch electronically. The expectation is that the Fishing BC app will have tidal water licence integration for the 2024-2025 season. The FBC app project is not yet complete and, as is the case with mobile apps, it is expected that the app will continue to evolve, adapting to technology changes and needs of the sportfishing community and DFO. This is the sort of commitment to a task that is needed to make changes to an en-trenched bureaucracy, and luckily for British Columbian anglers, the SFI continues to work on our behalf to make change happen.

Owen Bird 2005 Langara (Photo SFI)

Today, the SFI is involved in issues and activities related to sportfishing and conservation, including aspects of fisheries, environment, and raising awareness on topics such as the status of Chinook salmon populations along the BC coast, Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW), rockfish populations, learning about the impacts of releasing sport caught salmon, development of fishing best practices, growing or emerging fisheries like the offshore tuna fishery, and more. To learn the specifics of these and other activities and projects, visit the SFI website.

Like BC’s sport fishery, the SFI has changed and evolved over the years. While originally created as an advocacy group for the sportfishing industry, the SFI has become a voice for all of BC’s recreational fishing community, from anglers to businesses and service providers. Anglers and those that work in or derive benefit from BC’s sport fishery are encouraged to join the SFI and to help promote and protect access and opportunity to sustainable fisheries. In addition, recreational anglers should consider participating in their local SFAC and advisory discussions with DFO. The SFI works hard, and the SFAB volunteers dedicate countless hours on behalf of anglers and sportfishing in BC.

Special thanks to the current SFI executive director Owen Bird, director Dr. Gerald Kristianson, and member Clyde Wicks for taking the time to talk about the past, current, and future activities of the Sport Fishing Institute of British Columbia.

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