A group of Northwest tourism providers, business owners and recreational freshwater anglers are appealing to Ottawa for the immediate opening of a catch-and-release recreational chinook fishery on the Skeena.
The group argues while the Skeena chinook harvest is allowed on a limited basis in other sectors, the in-river fishery remains closed despite its claim to have the lowest exploitation rates and the highest per-fish economic value.
“Compared to the marine environment the river angler is far less productive. Regardless if bar fishing from the bank, or on fly-fishing guided trip, we typically catch just one fish for every three days,” said Brian Niska, vice president of Kermode Tourism.
“There was a time when the goal was for every person to get their limit, and that’s just not the case anymore. As we move toward sustainability of limiting our impact it makes good business [to open the fishery].”
On May 8, DFO shut down all recreational salmon fishing in northern tidal and freshwater fisheries. Then on May 30, DFO allowed for limited marine sports chinook fisheries with a precautionary 25-30 per cent reduction in exploitation rates.
With catch-and-release on the Skeena River, as proposed by the Lower Skeena Sport Fishing Advisory Committee, the group says exploitation could be kept below one per cent to meet conservation goals, while still maintaining all the social and economic benefits of an open fishery.
“That’s the kick in the teeth for everyone involved in this,” Niska says. “It’s the river fishery that’s got the lowest impact to begin with. But in the marine environment, the way they sell it is with pictures of a bunch of fish on a scale: if you come here you can leave with a box of fish.”
With an estimated mortality of rate of one in 10, 2016 data compiled by Big River Analytics suggests each chinook caught and released generated about $35,000 in the Skeena angling tourism sector. Overall the report pins the annual domestic output of guided salmon fishing in the Terrace and Kitimat areas at $16.5 million. Chinook alone are responsible for $3.92 million, creating 53 jobs annually, according to the report.
The group signed an open letter to the minister of fisheries and oceans, Dominic LeBlanc, framing their argument with DFO’s own Allocation Policy Document. It states once conservation and First Nations needs are met, anglers should be given priority access. The document recognizes chinook as one of the mainstays of the recreational fishery and a major contributor to the tourism industry. It is therefore the best economic use of the resource, the DFO report reads.
“With this policy document in mind, please consider that the commercial troll fishery that is set to open on July 10th will harvest an estimate of 400 Skeena Chinook Salmon, yet the entire in-river fishery remains completely closed to recreational angling,” the group’s letter reads.
The minister’s office has not yet replied to the letter.
In an email to the Terrace Standard a spokesperson for LeBlanc said the ministry will review the group’s proposal and is committed to making science-based decisions on fisheries management.
“DFO consults regularly with stakeholders on all fish management decisions, and we welcome suggestions from our stakeholders and industry partners on the best way to promote a sustainable fishery that at the same time ensures the protection of the Chinook salmon,” he said. “We will analyze the proposal and will continue to work with stakeholders in this fishing season and the ones in the future.”
Skeena MLA Ellis Ross signed his name to the letter and wrote to Doug Donaldson, B.C.’s minister of forests, lands and natural resources, asking for provincial support, saying it is possible to reduce harvest numbers and still allow a fishery. DFO data on five-year averages show marine recreational fisheries accounted for 20 to 25 per cent of the Skeena-bound Chinook harvested, while the in-river fishery accounted for just seven per cent, or roughly one third. Ross, along with the group, says the sector could bring that number down to less than one per cent to meet conservation goals.
“A lack of opportunity will have a ripple effect on our entire regional economy,” Ross said in a press release. “Many local jobs depend on the activity generated by local outfitters and the visitors who come here from all over the world just to have the chance to catch a fish.”
An earlier version of this story quoted Brian Niska saying “All we do is fly fishing” while speaking on behalf of the industry. He was in fact speaking only about his employer. Niska was contacted again for clarification and that quote has now been replaced.