On a recent Sunday afternoon, Richmond automotive mechanic James Johnson “left work at work” and hit the Jericho pier with his five-year-old son, some buddies, some crab traps, and a rod and reel. This was strictly recreational. The group remembers a time when they could trap for the afternoon and be reasonably confident they’d be cracking crustaceans for dinner. Not now.
“You’d probably catch more crabs on a Saturday night downtown,” Johnson joked.
Johnson’s frequent fishing friend, Blake Doyle, said urban seafood hot spots attract plenty of poachers. As if to prove his point, soon after a woman carrying a large clear garbage bag half full of crabs—likely not of legal size, which is 115 millimetres for red rock crabs and 165 millimetres for Dungeness—walked off the pier to the parking lot.
“A lot of the time, people are not following the rules and they’re pulling undersized crabs,” he told the Georgia Straight. “I’ve never seen an [a fisheries] officer down here.”
Crab, once Vancouver’s most popular saltwater catch, has become notoriously overfished according to Ken Green, a Fisheries and Oceans Canada officer. Plus, there’s a scary-sounding Fisheries and Oceans ban on harvesting bivalves (such as oysters and clams) in the Vancouver area, due to the presence of fecal coliform bacteria and other contaminants.
Still, city waters remain a pretty good source of food—just not necessarily in the wild-catch way of the recent past.
Before urban agriculture became boutique-y—think back-yard chickens and US$750 Modern Coop habitats—many city dwellers were securing urban protein in the form of seafood and not making a big fuss about it. Plus, they were doing it cheaply: a basic provincial fishing licence costs just $36 a year.
Green, who is Fisheries and Oceans’ Pacific region conservation and protection supervisor, said the local saltwater offers up mild-tasting perch, smelt (popular in Asian and Eastern European kitchens), and pink salmon, when they’re in season and enough fish have returned to open the fishery. But dropping a line off Cates Park in North Vancouver or in Steveston usually won’t yield enough to end those trips to the supermarket—at least, not for those who respect the law.
“Normally, people wouldn’t have much chance of catching a salmon,” Green told the Straight by phone, noting that he fishes for fun with his son anyway. “Most of the time, you’ve got a fairly slim chance of being able to catch and retain a legal-sized crab.”
Green explained that the Steveston Fisheries and Oceans office employs just four officers who can crack down on poaching. They are responsible for policing a massive industry: the recreational, commercial, and First Nations fisheries of Vancouver, the North Shore, the Fraser River, the Strait of Georgia, and lower Howe Sound. Their first priority is the Fraser River, he said, because of the commercial fishery there. After that, they watch for people harvesting contaminated shellfish, which he said happens a lot, and crab poaching.
Alas, all is not lost. Fishers can still turn to urban lakes. In an effort to draw new recreational anglers to the sport, the Freshwater Fisheries Society of B.C. is in the third year of a pilot program called Fishing in the City. This spring, 40,809 rainbow trout (plus other species) from the trout hatchery in Abbotsford were released into Lower Mainland lakes, including North Vancouver’s Rice Lake, Coquitlam’s Como and Lafarge lakes, Burnaby’s Deer Lake, and Surrey’s Green Timbers Lake.
Since the early ’90s, there’s been about a 15-percent drop in recreational fishing across North America, according to Stacy Webb, the sport fishing development biologist for the FFSBC.
“Fishing is competing with so many other activities: mountain biking, skiing, running, taking kids to soccer games,” she explained. “We ask people, ”˜Do you fish as much as you want to?’ When they say no, it’s usually because of time.”
Webb said that until 2006, Vancouver’s Trout Lake was stocked by the organization. But the FFSBC abandoned that program because off-leash dogs were going after fishing lines. Webb thinks she can solve the problem, though, and hopes to bring catchable trout back to East Van in 2011.
Some lakes, she said, look more pristine than others, and she gets a lot of questions about whether eating trout that have been caught in city lakes is safe.
“If the fish are doing okay in the water, that’s a good sign that the fish are okay [to eat],” she said. “They’re very sensitive to low oxygen, contaminated water, or if it’s too warm. Plus, trout only eat insects, which makes them a healthy option.”
In the context of a renewed interest in urban agriculture, locally grown food, and DIY production, fishing within the city limits could see a comeback.
But for crab fishers like Johnson and Doyle, who look to the ocean for protein, the future relies on more regulation: policing poachers and ensuring a healthy, unpolluted harbour.
In celebration of B.C.’s annual family fishing weekend, a fishing licence isn’t required to fish in certain Lower Mainland lakes between June 18 and 20; for details, see bcfamilyfishing.com/.