Controversy erupts as DFO applies different management regimes to Skeena Gillnetters

The bonanza 2022 Skeena sockeye migration is most likely a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience. Jim Culp, from Terrace weighs in on the controversy created by DFO’s decidedly more cautious approach to commercial openings – despite the surprisingly abundant return.

To the Editor,

The bonanza 2022 Skeena sockeye migration is most likely a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience.

Commercial Fisheries are wrapped up in Area 4 for the 2022 salmon fishing season. A few test fisheries like the one on Babine Lake are ongoing, but for all intents and purposes, another year of sockeye fishing on the Skeena is in the books. Returns may be inconsistent, but controversy isn’t.

In particular, commercial gillnet fishers and their United Fishermen and Allied Workers (UFAW) representatives have been very critical of restrictions requiring ‘short net’s and short sets,’ referring to a DFO requirement for 1 ⁄ 2 length gillnets set for 20 minutes with extra time allowed for deployment and retrieval.

Though it would be best to move commercial fisheries to an entirely selective model, ‘short nets and short sets’ reduces bycatch trauma and mortality while providing commercial fishers with a reasonable opportunity to harvest sockeye and pinks.

If further gillnet fisheries occur the addition of weed lines between the cork and the net would further protect non-target species. UFAW representative Dawn Webb said the decisions made by DFO were based on politics rather than science. I disagree. As is elsewhere certain populations of Skeena salmon species and steelhead are in danger, and non-selective fisheries like gill nets are a prime culprit. Dawn went on to say DFO restrictions ‘limited the catch.’ True.

However the fleet harvested 490,720 sockeye. Prior to Fulton and Pinkut Creek spawning enhancements up to 1100 gillnetters would have often divided 490,750 or fewer wild sockeye amongst a much larger fleet of boats.

The final net catch of sockeye gets closer to 1 million fish if seiners, Food and Ceremonial fisheries and the demonstration fishery on Babine Lake is included.

Had this year’s record high sockeye coincided with last year’s record low steelhead it would have been a disaster. DFO and Provincial Fisheries would not have been able to react to such a dramatic co-migration conflict.

A higher percentage of steelhead would have been caught using regular nets and longer sets, and the 5,461 return-number would have been even lower. Test fishing this year shows better steelhead escapement, however it’s still well below the 20,000 fish thresh-hold many steelheaders feel is required for long term stability.

Caution on the part of the regulator was certainly warranted. Gillnets can’t determine whether or not endangered populations – whatever the species – are being harvested.

I have been involved in the ongoing Skeena salmon management crisis since 1974. My experience has been that ‘politics’ is more closely tied to the lobbying power of the commercial fishing industry than any other reason.

As the influence of this industry wanes, I believe the opportunity to make the transition to large fish wheels or alternative proven selective harvest technologies has arrived.

In lieu of the increasing conflict and friction over how Skeena salmon and steelhead are managed it’s time for DFO to become more effectively involved. A public review should be initiated in concert with the Province and First Nations.

The goal should be to solve the harvesting conundrum, overproduction on Babine spawning channels, preservation of jobs, and the protection of Prince Rupert as a hub for lower Skeena River selective harvesting operations. We must stand firm: not a single salmon should be processed in facilities outside the Skeena region.

Our shared goal should be a sustainable fishing future that protects all species while ensuring the economic opportunities for those that steward their fish stay in the community.

Jim Culp

Terrace, B.C.


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