First Nations Lead Conservation

I usually think about the Sockeye as the variety of salmon that is most often in trouble; today I got a reminder that other runs are failing too. In an article in Wednesday’s Vancouver Sun, Stephen Hume talks about the Chinook runs, and the lead that some First Nations groups are taking in trying to conserve the fish.

According to Canadian law, conservation has to be the first consideration taken by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) in regards to fishing policy. First Nations’ food and ceremonial fisheries come second, and then commercial and recreational fisheries. The First Nations groups argue that with regards to the Chinook, this policy is not being adhered to.

According to their research, the runs in 2009 were down approximately 90% from what they were just a decade ago:

“In 2009, the total spawner return for the seven stocks in this group was approximately 2,000 fish,” he wrote. “Louis Creek had six spawners return. In our territory, fewer than 80 returned to the Coldwater River and only 26 were left to spawn in the wild. This group of fish is in crisis and has been for many years … These stocks cannot sustain ANY harvesting…” [read full article]

Because of these statistics, the group is willing to stop fishing in their watersheds. Because the salmon stocks are so low, they are self-regulating by offering to stop fishing entirely until the fish return. But, they want the government to step up and follow suit by closing both the recreational and commercial fisheries in the same region.

They are also angry that while their fisheries are being severely regulated by the DFO in other areas, sport fisheries are allowed to continue. Then, when the expected runs don’t arrive in their territory, the First Nations’ fishery is closed entirely. This is, they argue, a violation of their constitutionally protected rights.

On the other side of the debate is the $650 million a year, 7,500 job saltwater commercial fishery, which has a powerful lobby group. They point to studies showing that among salmon which are caught in a sport fishery, held for 24 hours, and then released, 98% survive. First Nations, which are partly in support of the studies, are still cautious – there has been no testing done to see if such fish actually return to their natal grounds to spawn.

Hume notes at the end of his article that some sport fishermen have already voluntarily laid down their lines. He also points to the dangers the stocks are in of disappearing entirely, when he suggests that what is left for the industry is a “squabble over who gets to kill the last fish for fun.”

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