Between 200 and 250 illegal fishing nets have been seized on the Fraser River so far this year, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).
Fishery officer Mike Fraser, DFO detachment commander for Fraser East, Conservation and Protection (C&P), said right now there are 16 active investigations underway into illegal fishing.
About 160 of the seized illegal gillnets came from the Lower Fraser, from the mouth of the river, to just past Yale.
“We’ve been getting eight to 10 nets a week,” the fishery officer stated.
The problem is that illegal fishing, as well as buying illegal fish, is posing a direct threat to dwindling Fraser salmon stocks. The unlicensed fishing is mostly by individuals and the criminal element, which has prompted DFO fishery officers to increase enforcement efforts.
“The reality with the mixed-stock fishery on the Lower Fraser is that some of the runs can’t withstand any illegal fishing at all,” Fraser said. “It threatens their viability plus slightly warmer water temperatures can lead to higher mortality rates.”
Sweeping salmon closures and protection measures were put in place for the 2021 season to protect stocks of concern. They’re trying to let as many adult spawners as possible to return to their natal streams, especially given the recent heat wave. It’s seen as crucial to rebuilding runs, and pointing out the serious harm illegal fishing activity does, particularly to Fraser River sockeye salmon, and also chinook.
Despite what they described as “high compliance,” from area First Nations, DFO said it has received “an increase in public reports” of illegal fishing in a few areas, as well as illegal fish sales.
“As a result, we are increasing our enforcement activities, particularly at night.”
There are 38 fishery officers with C&P currently dedicated to the latest enforcement effort from the mouth of the river to the headwaters with a mix of enforcement from helicopters in the mid-river areas, to vehicle and patrol vessel monitoring, to nighttime enforcement.
There are illegal fishing net files open with DFO, but also reports of roadside fish sales, and fish being sold through Facebook as well, Fraser said.
Ken Malloway, co-chair of the Lower Fraser Fisheries Alliance, said he was surprised to hear DFO was increasing enforcement over an increase in illegal fishing given the overall high level of compliance by local First Nations.
Local Stólō have had a “tenuous” relationship with DFO enforcement in the past, Malloway said.
As an example there were only two local First Nations licensed for very limited chinook harvests on weekends. They used eight-inch nets for chinook, not sockeye nets.
There were a total of 55 chinook harvested the entire time. If there were any dead sockeye, the licence required they throw them back in the water.
“We knew who was fishing. There were only four nets in the water,” Malloway said. He knows because he was among those responsible for catch monitoring.
But on Facebook the commenters were ranting about how there were ‘nets all over the river’ with no fish getting by, and that 250 chinook came out of the river in one day.
Simply not true, Malloway said. But it’s typical of the rampant racism and misinformation they’re seeing on social media.
Stólō fishers used to be able to fish from March to December, he said, when stocks were more robust.
Now they are only permitted to go out on weekends from the second week of August until the first week of September for chinook only, with a chance at chum or maybe pinks, depending on numbers.
“First Nations had agreed not to fish. So the odd group might go out fishing in defiance, but 99 per cent of the bands on the Fraser are in compliance.”
The majority in Indigenous leadership agreed not to fish sockeye this season to try to save the stocks, he said.
The problems are not centralized on the Lower Fraser but they take most of the blame, he said.
“Of course there are some First Nation guys that are out there fishing illegally,” Malloway said. “We know that and they know that. But there are also crackheads fishing and some who just don’t care about conservation.”
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