Glimmer of hope behind conflict over Skeena River fishing

Though it hasn’t ended well, some good efforts were made between sport fishers and First Nations

While communication did break down between anglers on the Skeena River recently regarding the Kitsumkalum food fishery request, a lot of effort has been put into working together.

There were extended conversations all spring between the Sport Fishing Advisory Board and the Kitsumkalum First Nation, working to understand each other and work together.

They reached what they felt was a respectful agreement, but unfortunately that agreement was poorly communicated to Skeena River anglers.

Many of the anglers found out on Friday about the request from Kitsumkalum that sport fishers avoid a section of the Skeena so the band could complete their food fishing early this week.

Many of those anglers were upset, but most were unaware of the hard-earned agreement and extended conversations behind the request.

Sport Fishers Advisory Board chair Urs Thomas said they have been in conversations with the Kitsumkalum throughout the big Skeena fishing closure June 15 to July 15.

“We were talking for quite a while,” said Thomas, adding that the Kitsumkalum planned to do their fishing earlier, but water conditions were poor and they weren’t able to catch enough.

At the same time, sport fishers already had a shortened season on the river with the closure, and they didn’t want to limit that more.

They decided on a compromise to balance both sides, agreeing that the Kitsumkalum would set their nets in one section of the Skeena, so sport fishers could still fish as well.

Mark Biagi, Kitsumkalum wildlife and fish operations manager, said the band was hoping to catch 200 chinook to supply their nation with food and ceremonial salmon, in place of the usual sockeye.

The band is involved in protecting Skeena salmon in a variety of ways, and they voluntarily chose not to catch sockeye early this year because they wanted to preserve the stocks. (The sockeye numbers were not low enough for the government to issue an official closure to First Nations, but the First Nations decided they wanted to be cautious and chose not to catch sockeye.)

With chinook, federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) director Colin Masson said numbers are fairly stable in the Kitsumkalum and larger rivers, though low in many of the smaller streams.

Chinook stocks are not at risk, Masson said, noting that pre-season counts in the larger rivers are fairly healthy, and in-season counts at the Skeena Tyee Test Fishery are not very reliable, because the fishery is aimed at counting sockeye.

The Kitsumkalum decision to request this four day closure, came after talking to the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and to the Sport Fishing Advisory, said Kitsumkalum official Biagi.

“In order to prevent conflict, we asked that (a section of) the river be closed for three or four days so we could fish for food,” Biagi said, explaining that the sport fishing advisory agreed it was a reasonable request.

But the play out has been really frustrating, and Biagi says it’s hard not to be angry to hear of incidents where anglers on the river angry and accusing.

The actual incidents, how many and what happened, is unknown, but police were called at one point to settle a conflict. (Click here for story.)

Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) director Colin Masson said it’s unfortunate how the situation has played out and disappointing to see animosity coming out.

However, he says there’s also been some meaningful dialogue between sport fishers and First Nations to come to an agreement about the requested closure early this week.

“That kind of respectful fishing plan, really requires a high level of communication,” said Masson.

Both groups “worked very diligently to come up with this idea of trying to enable certain days for recreational fishermen, and certain days for the nation fishermen to fish through a common fishing area.”

He hopes that type of dialogue will continue into the future, he said, where groups can work together to develop a shared plan that works for everyone.