Salmon are a lifeblood of northwest B.C. Mighty creatures that travel hundreds of kilometers throughout the Pacific Ocean, only to swim back to whence they came to spawn and die.
The first time I caught a chinook salmon it was an exhilarating experience. The line was hit hard by this elite athlete of natural engineering, flexing the rod, sending my heart racing as it tried to pull away and I fought to reel it in. After more than 20 minutes I hoisted this gorgeous, powerful creature from the water. A bounty like no other.
That experience was more than two years ago, when the fishing on the Skeena River, home to one of Canada’s largest salmon runs, was strong and unimpeded. But things have changed.
On May 8, 2018, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) announced, that “effective immediately recreational salmon fishing in the entire Skeena River Watershed is closed until further notice.” This ban specifically applies to fishing chinook salmon — the season would normally open around the middle of June. It’s the second year in a row that a full ban on recreational chinook fishing has been in place. “We get emails, people are like, ‘what’s going on there, are we going to be able to fish when we’re there?’” says Andrew Rushton, a fishing guide and owner of the Kalum River Lodge.
Rushton has been fishing along the Skeena and its tributaries for decades, and although he doesn’t disagree that salmon populations have declined over the years, he feels the DFO restrictions are severe and could put his business in jeopardy.
“I can tell you right now, with our business, I’m 58 years old, there’s no resale with my business. This uncertainty, I worked my whole life, reinvested into the community and basically my resale for my quotas and rod days and everything of value, my lodge, might as well just run it until I’m done because they’ve created so much uncertainty.”
Rushton, along with other anglers, tourism providers and fishing guides, are calling for a catch-and-release fishery for Skeena chinook instead.
A 2016 analysis by the Skeena Angling Guides Association (SAGA), regarding the economic impact of guided fishing along the Skeena river and tributaries near Terrace B.C. found that catch and release is a valuable way to manage fish populations. Overall, according the the SAGA analysis, guided fishing in the Lower Skeena region, is a $16.5 million a year industry, employing more than 150 people.
Rushton thinks that instead of a complete ban on chinook fishing, DFO should have implemented catch-and-release. “It’s not science; it’s politics, one hundred per cent,” he alleges.
But DFO says dwindling stocks dictated this decision, not politics, and so far it has no plans to open the river for chinook this season.
“In order to meet the [conservation] objectives,” says Colin Masson, DFO’s area director for the north coast, “we made significant reductions in the recreation fisheries in the river and particularly in the adjacent marine areas and also in more distant areas by reducing the bag limit for recreational harvesting.”
The Skeena watershed is home to all five Pacific salmon species: pink, chum, coho, sockeye and chinook. Chinook are the largest of the five.
According to the Pacific Salmon Foundation, who’ve compiled Skeena salmon population data from over the past 60 years, nearly one quarter of assessed populations are on the decline and require increased conservation measures to protect them.
DFO measures not enough, local First Nations say
While tourism operators are concerned DFO is being too heavy-handed, some First Nations leaders say DFO’s measures aren’t nearly enough.
Their main concern is that the DFO banned chinook fishing along the Skeena River and tributaries but they didn’t impose a ban in the ocean areas that the salmon swim through to get to the river. Marine areas adjacent to the Skeena Estuary were opened in June with reduced harvest rates of chinook to only one per day.
“We oppose the actions of DFO allowing the recreational fishery to harvest chinook in this salmon crisis, and BC issuing guide outfitter permits and individual licenses to allow the recreational steelhead catch and release fishery to remain open,” stated Bruce Watkinson, co-chair of the Skeena Nations Fish Secretariat, in a statement released in June.
“If Canada and BC are serious about their commitments to Indigenous Peoples, then the Skeena watershed and marine waters should be closed to all recreational salmon fishing for the 2018 season.”
Masson, DFO’s area director for the north coast, says the measures taken by DFO are sufficient.
“We’re aware that many First Nations think it’s not sufficiently conservation oriented,” says Masson. “At the same time we’ve recognized that there are calls for providing increased catch and release. So we believe our current course of action is the appropriate.”
Along the Bulkley River, a tributary of the Skeena about 400 km east of Prince Rupert, in the Witset Canyon, members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation were accustomed to harvesting 55 to 60-pound chinook year after year. Fisherman Willie Pete said last season that “we’d be lucky if we got a 50-pounder out of the canyon.”
As stocks continue to dwindle, hope is fading for some First Nations people who have traditionally relied on salmon for their livelihoods and sustenance.
“I hung on to hope for a long time and I’m at the end here so my hope has really faded into the sunset,” says Chief Yahaan (Donnie Wesley) a hereditary chief of Gitwilgyoots Tribe. “For the future of my village here as ocean-going people you know you can’t run a dilapidated boat out into the water and expect your bounty eh. It’s just not going work.
“For myself, I don’t know how much longer I can hold on to this game here, I might end up selling my boat within a year or two.”
Up river, one of the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s hereditary cheifs, Chief Na’Moks (John Ridsdale), is still optimistic.
“It’s up to all people to step back from harvesting at this point — commercial, sport and Indigenous,” says Na’Moks. The Wet’suwet’en have had a self-imposed ban on harvesting sockeye for 17 years.
Na’Moks says although the northwest is experiencing unprecedented declines in chinook and sockeye populations — due in part, he says, to DFO’s poor management around retention limits — , the only way forward is together.
“We must all look after the returning salmon or there will be no returns to spawning beds and thus, no future returns.”
Sockeye unexpectedly increase
There’s a test fishery, the Tyee Test Fishery, on the Skeena River that is designed to count returning salmon — it was developed to provide daily estimates of sockeye. The numbers determine what kind of fishing can happen. For sockeye, if numbers reach 400,000 then First Nations people can fish for food, social and ceremonial purposes. Once the number reaches 800,000 then recreational and sport fishing is allowed. And, if it reaches 1.05 million fish, then commercial harvesting of sockeye can happen.
According to Masson, an unexpected increase in the estimated size of the sockeye run allowed DFO to open a two day commercial gillnet fishery on the ocean July 24th and 25th.
This piece was edited by Robin Parelle with fact-checking by Francsca Fionda. Additional support by Lindsay Sample.