BC Natives Should Ration Salmon Catch, Ottawa Says

Mark Hume

VANCOUVER – Sockeye returns to the Fraser River this summer will be so poor that the federal government has asked 94 native bands in the watershed to come up with a catch-sharing plan that, for the first time, may involve “salmon rationing.” Native leaders say such meagre catches are forecast that people who have always had sockeye as a staple of their traditional diet might not get any this summer.

“The salmon that are harvested will need to be rationed between and among the bands. And the individual bands may have to ration salmon inside their communities. They will very likely be forced to create priority lists for salmon,” said Ernie Crey, a director of the Sto:Lo Nation fisheries program. “Very likely the able-bodied will do the fishing. But the leaders may be forced to say first priority for who gets the salmon are the elderly, single moms and those on welfare,” said Mr. Crey, whose organization represents about a dozen bands on the lower river.
Salmon boats sit idle in Steveston Harbour in Richmond, B.C., in 2007, after the Fraser River salmon fishery was closed. This year, sockeye returns are forecast to be so poor Ottawa has asked 94 bands to co-operate in a catch-sharing plan. (Richard Lam/The Canadian Press) “.The government calls it a sharing plan, but that is really a euphemism for the rationing of salmon,” he said.

Although other species, such as chum and late-summer chinook, are forecast to be numerous enough to support fisheries, the loss of sockeye is a blow, because the oil-rich salmon are considered the mainstay of the native diet on the Fraser. Early explorers told of seeing salmon-drying racks in the Fraser Canyon, where they can still be found in the summer, with families gathering to put away enough fish for a year. “There’s a great dependence on the annual sockeye run,” Mr. Crey said. “The principal dietary source of protein relied upon by these 94 communities is quickly vanishing and it’s alarming that there are no alternatives at hand to replace this food source.”

Early predictions are for a run of about two million sockeye, which sounds like a lot of fish. But that is down considerably from the 4.4 million average for this low-cycle year and far off the river’s historical annual average, for all years, of 9.7 million. Because the run was weak four years ago, it has long been expected that commercial and recreational fishing might not be allowed in 2008. But the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is now predicting such low returns that the aboriginal harvest of fish for food, social and ceremonial (FSC) purposes is also facing curtailment. DFO has been asking bands along the Fraser to come up with a plan to share whatever few salmon are caught.

Mr. Crey said DFO is hoping bands can work out a plan that is acceptable to everyone, reducing conflict on the river, even while stocks are plunging to extreme lows. “It has been a very difficult exercise for all the first nations . because they lack confidence in the [government’s salmon run] forecasts,” Mr. Crey said. “Last year there was a forecast of six million [sockeye] and it came in at two million . so we are worried it could be considerably less than [what is] being predicted now. How do we structure a plan when we don’t know how many fish there will be?” he asked. “It’s a very problematic exercise. This isn’t to say it can’t be accomplished, because there has to be a plan . and if we don’t come up with a plan, we know they [DFO] will impose a plan.”

In a letter to chiefs earlier this year, Paul Sprout, Pacific regional director general for DFO, said that reaching consensus “will be extremely challenging,” but it was necessary “in a year likely to require collective action towards conservation.” Mr. Sprout warned that low returns mean “all requests for FSC access cannot be fully satisfied.” Sockeye start returning in the early summer and continue running through the fall. DFO predicts the run size far in advance by using a model that considers the size of the progenitor run (the parents of this year’s salmon spawned in 2004) and other things related to ocean survival.

The growth rate of salmon at sea, water temperatures, salinity levels, the breeding success of sea birds (an indication of food abundance) and the timing of zooplankton blooms are all factors. DFO has calculated there is a 90-per-cent probability the Fraser sockeye run will be at least 1.2 million (which would mean almost no fishing), but there is a 50-per-cent probability it could reach 2.8 million (which would allow a limited harvest).

Brian Riddell, head of DFO’s Pacific salmon branch, said the Fraser’s sockeye run isn’t the only one in poor shape this year.
Wild sockeye in the Skeena have been rated as “a stock of concern,” which means it is unlikely fishing will be allowed for them.
Early chinook runs to the Fraser and Thompson Rivers and to the West Coast of Vancouver Island are also of concern, as are coho in the upper Fraser, Thompson and Georgia Strait.

Dr. Riddell said on the West Coast of North America, B.C. appears to be in a transition zone between southern waters, where nearly all stocks are in peril, and the north, where salmon are doing well.