Commercial catch upsets Skeena fish group

Late run sockeye called fragile and needed for spawning

A local fish conservation authority is upset federal officials opened a coastal commercial fishery for sockeye salmon, a move which it says goes against previous decisions.

On Aug. 23 and Aug. 24, a fishery was opened for gillnetters at the mouth of the Skeena in response to an influx in sockeye numbers that pushed the total return for this summer past the one million mark, approximately one-third of the expected number and minimum for a commercial opening.

Because the influx or “bump” happened late in August when the sockeye typically slows, Gitanyow Fisheries Authority head biologist and Skeena Fisheries Commission advisor Mark Cleveland says the commercial fishery shouldn’t have opened at all according to a conservation strategy created earlier this year.

He said the previous federal plan contained provisions about holding off on the commercial harvest of late intake sockeye. “It’s basically a short term economic gain decision to benefit a few commercial fisherman and we think those actions are going to have long term impacts on salmon stocks,” said Cleveland.

“A lot of taxpayers’ money went into insuring that all the players were at the table and we talked about these things during integrated harvest planning sessions and for them to just throw that away makes a mockery of the whole process.”

One reason late run sockeye needs to be conserved is because of the by-catch – the term meaning one species being caught by chance when another is the actual harvest target.

Late-run sockeye tend to be fragile, highlighting the importance of the trip to their spawning beds to ensure there are future generations.

“We decided in the pre-season to put measures in place to ensure that stocks of concern, specifically Kitwanga sockeye, Lake Babine river sockeye, chum stock, steelhead stocks, would be protected. And that there wouldn’t be any late season openings, and the minister signed off on that in the integrated fisheries management plan,” said Cleveland.

But according to federal fisheries officials, the surge in sockeye was a legitimate reason to allow a fishery.

“The Skeena River sockeye run size is estimated at 1.16 million and growing. Timing of this run is late; most years this run is over by mid-to-late-August,” said Michelle Imbeau from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans last week.

“This unusual run timing led to a change in the planned harvest method to ensure that commercial fishing would be carefully controlled and monitored to ensure careful management of the returning stocks,” she said. The permitted recreational catch was also raised from one, set in July, to two because of the late entry for the sockeye, said Imbeau.

For Cleveland, who looks after the fisheries upstream where the First Nations and recreational fisheries happen, there is a need to keep the annual return strong and not have the spawning salmon subject to a commercial fishery.

“If the bump had come three weeks earlier then the fishing would be okay,” he said.