Commercial salmon fisheries on the Skeena River in northern British Columbia have been a way of life, a vital part of the economy, and a valued support to community health and wellbeing in the region for over a century. In the last two decades a drastic curtailment of fishing opportunity has reduced commercial landings and fishing effort to less than 20% of where they stood in the mid-1990s and earlier. Ostensibly undertaken in the interests of conservation, the reduction in commercial access to salmon stocks is a much more complex story. This dissertation poses the question: what, if anything, would make commercial salmon fisheries on the Skeena “sustainable”? Starting from the premise that sustainability in fisheries is about more than the resource that is being harvested, I present a fishery-focused social-ecological system model that includes markets, communities, ecosystems and governance institutions. I situate the Skeena salmon fisheries in this model as a first step. I then turn to the management system to see how it addresses the issue of sustainability. Using a framework that was developed through the Canadian Fisheries Research Network (CFRN), I evaluate management on the Skeena over the past 30-40 years in three dimensions: ecological, socio-economic, and governance. Having shown that sustainability on the Skeena continues to be narrowly defined in terms of the productivity of salmon populations, I introduce a second model to represent how natural resources are meant to be exploited under conditions characteristic of “modernity”. I call this a “utilitarian control system” model: it shows how fisheries managers on the Skeena have been compelled to severely restrict the type and quantity of value extracted from the fishery in order to maintain an illusion of control over the resource production system. I conclude by presenting an alternative approach to sustainability that I term natural governance. Consisting of three primary systems – natural, governance and social – with three corresponding functions – diversity, legitimacy, and wellbeing – I apply the framework to the Skeena fisheries as a way of generating recommendations for how to begin the transition to a healthier relationship between human and natural systems.
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Thesis advisor: Pinkerton, Evelyn
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