B.C. salmon fisheries closing after record run
A sockeye salmon is reeled in by a fisherman along the shores of the Fraser River near Chilliwack, B.C., Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010. (Jonathan Hayward / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
VANCOUVER - The banner year West Coast salmon run isn't done yet, but the race is just about over for British Columbia fishermen to haul in as many wild sockeye as they can muster from the biggest return in nearly a century.
Last call comes from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which is shutting down the B.C. Fraser River fishery in stages starting Tuesday to make way for the endangered coho salmon.
Commercial fishermen are being encouraged to cast their nets one last time this season during a 24-hour sockeye opening starting 7 a.m. Monday.
"That will be the last chance to fish down in that area with that kind of gear," area director Barry Rosenberger said Sunday. "We're hoping that people get out there."
Some eight to 10 million wild sockeye will continue to swim up the river even as fishing vessels stay docked. But with wild coho finishing their own migration to spawning beds in the B.C. Interior between now and November, their best hope of survival is the halting of industry from reeling them in.
Only about 30,000 of the most at-risk stocks of coho are expected to arrive back from their ocean journey this year, Rosenberger said.
According to the Fisheries Department, coho populations -- salmon with silvery sides, metallic blue backs and irregular black spots -- have declined by more than 60 per cent since 1996, potentially due to overfishing and environmental changes in their habitats.
"While you certainly want to make opportunities available for fishermen to fish for sockeye, at the same time you don't want to do it in a way that severely compromises other species," said conservationist Mark Angelo, Rivers Institute chair at the B.C. Institute of Technology.
Maintaining a diversity of species throughout the watershed promotes a healthy system where survival is high for all salmon, Angelo said.
"If we don't give them a chance, so many of these fish can be picked up as bycatch."
The closure will stretch from the mouth of the Fraser River to Mission, B.C. on Tuesday. It will come into effect from Mission to Hope, B.C. on Thursday and the remainder of the river heading upstream will shut on Saturday.
Recreational fishermen, who are allowed to catch two sockeye per day, will have until Sept. 19 to cast their lines.
By the time all sockeye fisheries close this year, Rosenberger estimates fishermen will have reeled in upwards of 12 million fish of the lucrative 34 million run. The last time wild sockeye flooded home in such bountiful supply was 1913, when 39 million showed up.
The bonanza has been in stark contrast from several years of no fishing due to dramatic declines through to last year, when there was only 1.5 million fish -- prompting a federal inquiry that starts in earnest next month.
Fishermen preparing to climb aboard their gillnetters to give it one last go called the closures "disappointing."
"DFO here is simply saying we don't care whether there's a commercial fishery in 2014 or not," said fisherman Phil Eidsvik, spokesman for the B.C. Fisheries Survival Coalition.
"Thousands of British Columbians make their livelihoods from it and they do care. People like me care about the health of the salmon stocks and the health of the fishery."
Eidsvik and others say the decision will lead to wasted fish. They contend a large number of sockeye will die off because the lakes where the fish spawn will be filled over capacity, affecting the run four years from now.
"There's a perfect number of fish to put on the spawning grounds, you can't put too many, you can't put too little. These guys (Department of Fisheries) are so far past the happy medium."
Rosenberger, however, argued large numbers of sockeye reaching spawning grounds does not lead to collapse, pointing to an oft-cited 2004 study published by the Pacific Fisheries Resource Conservation Council
"They didn't find that over-spawning had catastrophic affects on returns," he said.
First Nations' food and ceremonial fisheries are also set to end this week, but on-going discussions with the government means they may be extended.
Ernie Crey, fisheries adviser to the Sto:lo First Nation, said they shifted their fall fishery to a selective method more than a decade ago, to help endangered fish survive.
Instead of using gillnetting techniques that somewhat indiscriminately catch fish by the gills, they use the live capture method of a beach seine. Once fish are looped inside the net, fishermen wade through the water, retrieve at-risk fish and throw them back to their migrating cohort.
"There hasn't been any comparable change in the industrial fishery," Crey said.
"They've had a good season, I'm happy for them, but when the coho and the steelhead (another endangered species) move into the system, it's a good thing they're not fishing."