Angling for the local guy

Tourists are flocking to fish our rivers, which is great. But there needs to be some (real) regulation to ensure the rights of locals are protected.

I almost called my editor to ask to cancel this week’s column. Like most everyone at some point or other, I was approaching stress overload and just couldn’t find the time or energy to write, despite noteworthy events such as the approaching Aboriginal Day, dominion (Canada) day, and newsy bits like Muskrat Falls and the smaller byelection showing for the Liberals due to the growth of NDP support in Cartwright-Lanse au Claire. But sometimes we all just need to unplug, find somewhere to disconnect and ground ourselves.

Many of you know what I’m talking about: that peaceful reconnect with nature. Even if you have a ginny at the cabin, or imbibe a few while camping (I quit all societal ‘comforts’ cold turkey when I come here. Except the tablet this was written on…), it’s still a chance to vacate and recreate. Vacate being the obvious root word of vacation, but few of us stop to think about the root word of the latter.


When we recreate, we re-create ourselves. However it is that we do it – through play, reading, or through solemn reflection – we make an adjustment to our psyches. We re-format some part of ourselves. Therefore, the manner in which we do it reflects the the kind of re-creation we achieve. And if we don’t do some kind of recreating, our minds sallow.

For urban(e) people, recreation might simply be playing golf or walking along a canal. For most in this province, it’s about going to the cabin and enjoying the outdoors, often in some fashion that we imagine those that came before us did. Fishing, camping, going out in boat, and so on. What we imagine as ‘traditional’ I s’pose.

Labrador recreation

Currently, I’m sitting in a deliciously sleepy haze in a house (cabin to others), on my old family homestead in White Bear River, Labrador. It’s where some of my ancestors eked out a living and hunkered down for the winters (the mixed bloods as well as the Inuit before them fished the headlands in the summer and moved inland on the bays and rivers for the winter). About 40 kilometers from Cartwright and centuries away from the mind-numbing din of doo-dads, gadgets, assholes and traffic.

Even silence in our modern houses got nothing on a night out in the woods.

So for me at least, part of my recreation is rebuilding some of the old homestead. One of our current projects is collecting up flat rocks from all the old family fishing stations on the outside (is)lands. Each one of those rocks represents a piece of our family history and comes with a story of each place and the people who lived there – stories and history which are being denied recognition by government, I might add. Inuit and mixed peoples of Southern Labrador, our peoples’ history in places like Shelmucks Harbour and Independent: these rocks are being made into a labyrinth of sorts. A walking path for contemplation. (They also make for good patio stones).

The long walk around

Anyway, if you’ve read my sprawlings (skraelings?) before, you know I can’t write something without having some kind of gripe. One of the things I like to do with my father (and my gramps before he passed) on these vacation-ing re-creations, is go fly fishing. It just so happens that Labrador has some of the best Atlantic Salmon fly fishing rivers in the world, in some of the most beautiful landscapes (bias alert!) in the solar system. So much so that White Bear, and parts of the Eagle River, are going to be enveloped by the (proposed) Mealy Mountain National Park.

All this to say: the area has experienced increased interest from tourists in general, and fly fishers specifically. Now, the White Bear is beautiful, and the fishing is excellent, but Eagle River it is not. Nor is it the Exploits, Gander, nor even the Humber. The main fishing pool can sustain maybe six or eight rods. That’s it. So you can feel the difference in crowding pretty quickly. 

The problem 

While I very much appreciate sharing my homeland, and preserving its beauty with parks instead of most other forms of economic ‘development’, it got me thinking about the disparity between locals and visitors. This has been the case since the Eagle opened up to host outsiders (including George Bush). This came to a head once when a local guy wanted a fish camp license but was denied one due to overcrowding, only to find out someone from the island was granted a license a few months later. Not to mention constant pressure from outfitters to close down the Aboriginal communal fishery (which I’m sure I’ll write about another time), which is essentially backwards in legal priority.

Anyway, THIS time around I got pretty annoyed when a group of outfitters showed up and had the gall to grumble because my little brown self got in amongst their pudgy rich faces in one of the best pools to fish. Specifically, one of those people who spent a lot of money to fish in one of the premier rivers in the country, and popped over to try out the White Bear too. My second annoyance came when I watched as those same fishers caught and released more than their daily limit. To hell with the rules – they paid a lot to come here, I s’pose? My third annoyance was the regular helicopter drop-ins with loads of people who may, or may not, have had clearance to land here (or had a license at all).

Pretty soon local people won’t even be able to enjoy the lands on which they’ve hunted, fished and trapped since time immemorial. I’m not against outsiders coming and enjoying these lands. I’m quite proud to share them. But at this rate, pretty soon we won’t be able to come here any more, as is the case with many rivers in Atlantic Canada (I’m aware I might be preaching to the choir on this one).

But what can we do about something that everybody (arguably) has the right to partake in?

For starters we should have more research and enforcement. There is no way someone can tell me that hooking and dragging a pregnant fish across the pumbly rocks for half an hour or more doesn’t damage or kill the fish (or at least prevent them from swimming up 10 meter high water falls). But we don’t know that, do we? Let’s study that so we can adequately protect this moratorium species. About the same number of salmon are caught in Southern Labrador by anglers as by the Aboriginal fishers, according to my little guide book (a fact which is based on less than 50% of the anglers reporting back under the voluntary reporting system). In fact, anglers in Newfoundland and Labrador catch more than 12 times more fish than the Aboriginal fisheries combined. Additionally, more fish are actually caught in White Bear River than that little book tells me (it reports 50 for the whole year and in my 4 days on the river I know of at least 40 being caught), so I know from first-hand experience that the reporting is inaccurate. For most of the other rivers with fish camps in Labrador too – like the Alexis River, which has a fish camp (PDF file) that reports only 21 salmon and 41 rods –  I doubt such data very much.

The intrepid author, fishing Euro-style. Photo courtesy Brandon Pardy.
The intrepid author, fishing Euro-style. Photo courtesy Brandon Pardy.

Which brings me to the subject of enforcement. I don’t expect fisheries officers on the rivers at all times, but the camps and guides need to have more checks and balances. Currently, out of province fishers pay a measly $53 for their license. They probably pay upwards of $10,000 to come and fish here. Upping that fee won’t hurt the industry, and it would certainly pay for greater enforcement of the rules, and fund studies on catch-and-release survival rates. One simple solution is to make catch and catch effort reporting mandatory, with a fine for not reporting. How can one do proper assessments of the fish stock if anglers are able to ignore or lie on their license returns? For that matter, guides and fish camps should have to report independently so we can assess the fishy stories properly.

My final point – and I hope you can agree at least a little – is that local people should always have access to the resources in their area. Fly fishing is just one example. I know that other rivers in other areas literally have lineups and waiting lists for a foothold on the riverbank from which to fish. It’s becoming that way on the island, and I never want to see that happen to the exclusion of locals here in Labrador.

My solution? Have designated local fishing times or days for locals. And not off-peak days and times either. Otherwise, a lack of rules or standards means that a group of outsiders can camp and occupy any space all day long, effectively barring the river.

Apply this concept to hunting, forestry, lake and rivers access, or any other resource, and outside populations can outnumber us in our own backyards pretty much anywhere in this province. Especially if it comes down to a matter of who has more money. We’ll lose.

Otherwise, we’ll have to occupy those spaces along the rivers and streams and put our own people out of guiding jobs at some point just to reclaim our right to be there too.

I hope not, because ecotourism is one of the few local sustainable industries to look forward to.

Back to my peace (but not quiet) now that I’ve vented. Happy recreating everyone!

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