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The EATEN PATH: Chilliwack First Nations, recreational anglers waiting for sockeye

Recreational anglers line Peg Leg bar along the Fraser River in Chilliwack during the large sockeye run in 2010. - Paul J. Henderson/FILE
Recreational anglers line Peg Leg bar along the Fraser River in Chilliwack during the large sockeye run in 2010.
— image credit: Paul J. Henderson/FILE

They may be a little bit late, but make no mistake, the salmon are coming.

Sockeye by the millions are currently on the way through the Johnstone Strait into the Strait of Georgia and into the mouth of the Fraser River.

Some smaller runs have already arrived in the river, but recreational anglers, First Nations fishers and commercial harvesters are watching closely for what could be the largest run of this iconic species of salmon in many years.

“Everyone is buzzing in anticipation of the salmon,” says Cheam fisherman Darwin Douglas. “Last year was a very poor year and this has been the top since 2010, the last big run.”

Test fisheries in the Johnstone Strait have been showing high numbers lately, and a short four-hour opening for local First Nations food, social and ceremonial (FSC) on July 26 didn’t net many but the fish were large.

“The fish were big and that’s always a good sign,” Douglas said.

Douglas is also a band councillor with the Cheam First Nation. He has also been hoping to capitalize on this year’s expected big run. Long in the works, Douglas and his wife Francine recently opened up the Cheam Trading Post on Highway 9 right before the Agassiz-Rosedale Bridge.

They have frozen sockeye, smoked salmon, other seafood products, Okanagan fruit, as well as fireworks and arts and crafts.

And if all goes according to expectations, they’ll be selling the sockeye Douglas and his family bring to Cheam Beach just a few hundred metres away from the shop.

Keep in mind, there is no legal sockeye being sold yet from this year’s Fraser River run, and recreational anglers can’t retain sockeye . . . yet.

Fishery officer Brad Wattie with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) explained how the licensing works. DFO issues licences for all three user groups: commercial, recreational and aboriginal.

DFO issues recreational licences for tidal waters, which means below the CPR bridge at Mission. Recreational licences for the non-tidal areas are issued by the provincial government. Once the fishery opens, there will be strict daily limits on what’s allowed.

Local First Nations groups have two types of licences issued by DFO. There is the food, social and ceremonial (FSC), which is more commonly issued, sometimes even in leaner years. In years of high abundance such as 2010 and (hopefully) this year, DFO issues an economic opportunity fishery so that local Sto:lo bands can sell their fish.

Douglas said 22 or 23 Sto:lo bands have signed on to a comprehensive agreement that will allow them to sell their fish once the licence is issued.

That’s where non-angling, sockeye-loving foodies in Chilliwack and the rest of B.C. benefit as the beautiful, red-fleshed fish should be for sale everywhere, including (legally) on some local reserves.

As for what’s ahead on the Fraser River in August, there is always the potential for conflict in varying forms. Sports fishermen often tussle with one another as inexperienced anglers line the banks of popular bars alongside seasoned veterans. There are often disputes between recreational anglers and First Nations participating in FSC fisheries. And while DFO polices all the user groups, fishery officers and Sto:lo fishermen have had their share of tension over the decades.

“We have a pretty long history of altercations with the department,” Douglas says. “Especially with their enforcement guys because sometimes they try and use a heavy hand.”

Wattie, who is detachment supervisor for the waterways in Chilliwack, says fishery officers are well-trained to deal with trouble.

“We are placed in situations where we are on bars with 3,000 to 4,000 people so the ability to talk is key to our ability to function. Fishery officers can understand conflict and deal with conflict.”

Douglas says there have been improvements over the years in terms of communications between DFO and First Nations. He would, however, like to see more of a co-management system on the river rather than the DFO policing over aboriginal fishers in traditional Sto:lo territory.

He added that an abundant year is one element that helps reduce conflict.

“Everybody seems to be happier when everyone is catching fish,” he said.

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Recipe

So you’ve got yourself a whole sockeye and you don’t know what to do with it? To clean and filet the fish is actually relatively easy and YouTube is a great resource to see how it’s done.

As for cooking, the possibilities are endless. With a fish this good and fresh, all it needs is a little salt and pepper and lemon, barbecued or baked and you’re good to go.

But there is more you can do.

Here’s my favourite simple recipe, a slight adaptation on a Bonnie Stern one:

In a small bowl, mix together a spoonful each of paprika, coriander, lemon peel, salt and sugar.

Spread this rub all over a boneless filet of salmon. Stern says take the skin off. I leave it on.

Bake on a parchment-lined panat 425 F for 20 minutes or until the fish flakes.

Then chop up a tomato and/or a mango, mix it with seeded, chopped jalapeno, red pepper, cilantro, mint, some lime juice and salt.

Serve the salmon with the salsa on top or on the side.

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