Local conservation officers and poachers ramped up a dangerous cat-and-mouse game on the Fraser River last week after salmon fishing was banned to protect vulnerable sockeye stock.
Low returns and recordhigh water temperatures, which could kill as many as 70 per cent of the returning sockeye before they spawn, prompted officials to close the river to all salmon fishing Aug. 15 to prevent sockeye from being taken as a bycatch.
"We need every one of these fish to get back to the spawning grounds," DFO Lower Fraser area conversation protection chief Herb Redekopp told the Times.
But the absence of commercial and recreational sockeye openings this season along with very limited First Nations licences for food and ceremonial purposes have led to a "pent up" demand for the valuable fish, Redekopp said, and local poachers are risking both bodies and boats to get them, mostly fishing under the cover of night.
"We've had a number of boat chases where we've had vessels trying to escape capture," Redekopp said. "It's very dangerous because there's a lot of debris in the river and they hit the shore at a fairly high speed and run into the
bush. Some of those individuals we've apprehended, and if we know who it is, we'll issue them a summons once we do up the charges. But we always seize the vessel, the nets, the fish, everything."
DFO doubled its enforcement efforts on the Fraser from Hell's Gate to Mission when the salmon closure was announced, bringing in extra officers, stepping up patrols and employing everything from helicopters to nightvision imaging to detect illegal activity.
In just over a week, conservation officers have seized eight fishing vessels, laid charges against 27 people and dismantled about half a dozen illegal nets per night.
Redekopp said most of the charges and seizures have been made against aboriginal fishers, but he added that DFO isn't biased.
"We'll charge anyone that is fishing," he said.
Most local aboriginal fishers honour closure even when that means frustration and hardship, Sto:lo Tribal Council fisheries advisor Ernie Crey told the Times.
But he's not surprised to hear some native fishers have been caught poaching.
"They're driven by desperation to the river," he said.
While the focus right now is on getting as many live sockeye up the river as possible, Redekopp said his officers are also going after people who sell and buy the poached fish.
"We will charge both the fishermen as well as the person selling the fish and the buyer of the fish," he said.
The illegal salmon trade ranges from "just bags full of fish" sold from the backs of pickups to "large scale," according to Redekopp, but he said he couldn't comment on just how large scale the market is.
"That's something I really can't speak to you about right now," he said.
While a scarcity of salmon on the Fraser strains relationships between different user groups, Redekopp said the current mood on the river is better than it was 10 years ago thanks to greater co-operation between First Nations and recreational fishers.
"A decade ago we had far more very high conflict situations on the river than we do now," he said.
Redekopp said opportunities for pink salmon could start opening up in about a week.
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