Perfect storm on the Skeena

Columnist Rob Brown: "A sustainable fishery was supplanted by an unsustainable one."

Bob Hooton, former Regional Biologist for the Ministry of the Environment in Skeena, could never be accused of being afraid of hard work, or of doing his job with anything less than highest standard of professionalism. When a man brings that kind of integrity and determination to the job, he will inevitably have to make some tough, unpopular, decisions that will incur the opprobrium of those less well informed than he.

During one of those times when Bob had drawn fire for doing what turned out to be the right thing, I suggested to him that he might want to consider leaving the government for a job with one of the environmental consulting firms that were springing up all over the landscape like fungi in the first rain after a drought.

You would have half the stress and probably make more money, I said.

I didn’t get in this job for the money, Bob shot back, I got into it for the fish.

The federal government delegates the care and handling of steelhead to the province, and because  Skeena has more steelhead streams than any other part of the province, Bob and his staff found themselves front and centre in the struggle to save Skeena steelhead.

It was then that I first heard Bob ask what the federal fisheries department was prepared to do if a huge run of sockeye arrived at the mouth of the Skeena at the same time as a low return of summer steelhead?

I doubt that that question made Bob a lot of friends within the ranks of his federal counterparts, but it goes to the very heart of what is wrong with fisheries management in Skeena.

But, before we go there, a little history is helpful.

When European settlers first beheld the size and sophistication of the First Nations’ fisheries here they were gobsmacked. These were large scale operations that included weirs and barricades at places like Babine and Kitwanga that blocked entire rivers. The First Nations fishers had the technological power to wipe out the entire fishery if they desired. They didn’t. Each aboriginal person required a lot of fish. Collectively, they harvested a huge amount, yet when the Europeans first came they reported staggering salmon abundance.

The settlers were at a loss to explain how primitive peoples achieved this balance. The answer is that the people weren’t primitive and their management of the fishery wasn’t either. The Skeena First Nations’ fishery was a complex operation where chiefs controlled access to fishing rights and granted that access to houses in accordance with proper management. Prohibitions against waste and the need for conservation were an integral part of their culture, and a system of reciprocity that provided incentives against over harvest was central to it.

The First Nations were sensitive to natural nuances. They didn’t chase fish. They waited for fish to swim to them. Fish in the sea are difficult to segregate. First Nations fishers waited until the fish segregated themselves as they moved upstream, and when it came to intercepting the salmon, they used selective methods to catch them.

In 1873 the commercial fishery began in earnest. Fish were taken by net fishers in boats near the mouth of the Skeena, in the estuary, and in the approach waters to the river. All of the conservative, sustainable features of the native fisheries were lost when the federal government demolished the First Nations’ fishery through legislation and through the elimination of aboriginal fishing sites. Thus a sustainable fishery was supplanted by an unsustainable one.

By 1920 Skeena salmon stocks began to decline. Small bumps of abundance notwithstanding, they have been declining ever since, testimony to the utter ineptitude of the commercial fishing model.

Over the last 20 years, stock declines, pressure by a much more lucrative sport fishery upstream, and pressure from First Nations have forced DFO managers to try and manage the unmanageable. They will never succeed because it’s impossible to fish discriminately with nets.

In the perfect storm scenario implicit in Bob’s question, DFO managers, because they have reflexively served industry for over a hundred years, will continue to give the fleets more fishing time and drive steelhead to the point of extinction, an action which is ecologically and economically indefensible.

There was another insurmountable challenge implicit in Bob’s question. As far as we know, the perfect storm scenario hasn’t occurred with steelhead, but what about sockeye? There are 30 sockeye stocks in Skeena. The enhanced stocks of Pinkut and Fulton, being the most abundant, get the most attention from commercial fishers. The smaller 28 stocks are indistinguishable from their enhanced cousins. The inescapable result is that these smaller runs of fish, unable to withstand high rates of harvest, will be fished to extinction. For the lesser Skeena sockeye stocks every year is a perfect storm.

Fortunately, the Lake Babine First Nations are wise to this and are planning to hold the federal government and DFO to its treaty obligations. I hope they do. I hope they sue. If they do and they win, the federal government will have be forced into ecologically sensitive management, the entire fishery will require extensive renovations, and the entire ecosystem will benefit.