Salmon fishers were back on the Fraser River this weekend.
Cooler water, improved sockeye run-size forecasts and reports that sockeye had started to arrive at spawning grounds in “good shape,” prompted fisheries officials to lift a ban on Fraser salmon fishing imposed in mid-August to protect the vulnerable species.
Recreational anglers between Mission and the Fraser Canyon hit the river Saturday morning for openings for pink and chum.
Anglers below Mission were fishing for Chinook, pink and chum, starting Friday morning.
First Nations fishers also took to their boats Friday morning for 12-hour Chinook openings for food, social and ceremonial purposes that will run until 7 p.m. Tuesday.
“While it may not be everything our community wanted in the way of a fishery, it’s still a fishery,” Sto:lo Tribal Council fisheries advisor Ernie Crey told the Times.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) closed the Fraser to all salmon fishing Aug. 16 in a bid to protect vulnerable sockeye stocks.
Lower than expected run sizes and record-high water temperatures, which threatened to kill up to 70 per cent of the returning sockeye before spawning, meant DFO didn’t want to take any chances with sockeye being taken as a by-catch.
But those conditions had changed by early last week.
“There is some hope that, as a result of the improved conditions, that we’re going to see some larger numbers of fish on the spawning grounds than we were expecting to see earlier in the year,” Fraser River panel co-chair Les Jantz said. “That combined with the increased run sizes is an encouraging sign to us.”
During the salmon ban, the department said illegal fishing had spiked and enforcement had been doubled between the Port Mann Bridge and the Fraser Canyon.
As of Thursday, conservation officers had confiscated 10 vessels and 66 nets, and launched 29 investigations into fisheries offences.
No accurate estimate of the number of confiscated fish was available, but DFO acting director of enforcement Tom Hlavac said that number had been “piling up pretty quickly.”
While he didn’t have a breakdown of which user groups were involved in the seizures and investigations, he said most were likely aboriginal fishers. “My assumption would be that at least a large component of that would be,” he said, “but there is poaching by non-aboriginal individuals on the Fraser and elsewhere on the coast.”
In an earlier interview, Crey had told the Times, he wasn’t surprised some First Nations fishers had been caught breaking the ban, since fishing opportunities have been scarce this year, and some aboriginal fishers have been driven to the river out of desperation.
In an email Thursday, he said he hoped the weekend Chinook openings would take the focus off the small number of First Nations fishers breaking the rules.
“This fishery should help lessen all the exaggerated and hysterical outrage about Indian poaching,” he said.
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