“We have committed to an open, honest government that is accountable to Canadians….”
(From the mandate letter provided to the Honourable Dominic LeBlanc, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard by The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada)
I’ve written previously on the matter of the net fisheries for enhanced sockeye salmon impacting summer steelhead returning to the Somass River tributaries (the Stamp River and its own tributary the Ash River being the foremost among them) once renowned for the sport they offered. My first post (September 7, 2016 “Remembering the Stamp”) spoke to my efforts to get the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to address questions put to their Port Alberni staff regarding the number of steelhead caught by commercial and First Nations nets. A second post (“A letter to the Minister of Fisheries”) on September 8 described the next step taken. Those attempts and a number of follow-ups were described further in a December 5, 2016 post (“The System is Rigged”).
None of those messages received an acknowledgement, much less a response. Still thinking someone must be home in Ottawa, I tried the opposition Conservative’s fisheries critic, Member of Parliament (MP) Todd Doherty, who represents British Columbia’s Cariboo – Prince George riding. My message to him was dated November 13, 2016. More silence. Next was a request for assistance sent to the recently announced Parliamentary Secretary to Minister LeBlanc, MP Terry Beech, also a BC representative (Burnaby North – Seymour riding). On January 27, 2017 I sent him the full chronology of my efforts to have simple questions addressed. The silence continued. Finally, after seven months of being stonewalled at every juncture, I contacted the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s consumer affairs advocates with a suggestion there might be a story here they would be interested in. To be fair, that contact is only a couple of weeks old so I won’t write it off as unsuccessful yet but, given my experiences thus far, it’s hard to be optimistic.
Now, just to recap a couple of points. First, there are rules around catch reporting (conditions of license) for every one of the commercial fishery openings for the Port Alberni area fisheries authorized by DFO. These are readily seen in any of the notices published on DFO’s web site. Here’s an example clipped from Fisheries Notice 0522, dated June 14, 2016:
Daily Catch Report – for quota, prior to 08:00 hours the day after fishing or prior to landing of catch, or for non-quota, within 48 hours of stopping fishing or within two (2) hours of landing of catch – Phone AMR/E-Log Note: Daily Catch must be recorded in the harvest log for each day fished prior to each landing and by 08:00 hours the day after fishing.
That notice was specific to seine vessels. Here’s a clip from one specific to gill net vessels (Notice 0493, dated June 6, 2016):
In-season activity and catch reporting is a mandatory requirement under the 2016-2017 Area D Salmon Gill Net Conditions of Licence. This information is important for in-season management of the fishery. Furthermore, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has identified improved catch monitoring as a fundamental priority for fisheries management. Failure to comply with the 2016-2017 Area D Salmon Gill Net Conditions of Licence, in particular those sections specific to activity and catch monitoring, will be a priority for enforcement action.
So, there can be no dispute that the steelhead catch numbers I have been seeking since late June, 2016 are supposed to be readily available. The Port Alberni office of DFO issued weekly bulletins throughout the fishing season, from early June through early October detailing how many sockeye and chinook had been caught by the various commercial and First Nations fisheries as well as the recreational fishery but, mandatory catch reporting nothwithstanding, steelhead were obviously not on the DFO radar. The sockeye numbers indicate 61% of the estimated total sockeye return to the Somass system were harvested. It is not unreasonable to assume a similar proportion of the co-migrating steelhead was also caught.
Second, for the Port Alberni area commercial fisheries, the regulations read that coho, pink, chum, chinook and steelhead “may not be retained”. Other steelhead sensitive areas of the coast treat these fish quite differently. Here’s an example clipped from Fisheries Notice 0695 dated July 20, 2016 (Area 4 is the mouth of the Skeena):
All gill net fisheries in Areas 4 & 5 are being conducted with non-retention and non-possession of chum, chinook & steelhead. None of these species may be aboard a vessel that is engaged in fishing unless they are being revived in the revival tank immediately prior to release.
The difference between not being allowed to retain steelhead and not being allowed to retain or possess them unless they are being loved back to health prior to release is not trivial but it really doesn’t matter if no one ever checks. Consider a couple of examples in that context. The first stems from some investigative work done by Watershed Watch, a well known BC based conservation organization. The date was August 2013. It is plainly obvious how regulations applying to non-target species were embraced.
That incident produced enough heat from non-commercial fishing interests to pressure DFO’s enforcement staff to start paying attention to long standing regulations governing the treatment of non-target species. That didn’t happen overnight by any means but accountability was slowly becoming something that could no longer be ignored.
The next example of enforcement of regulations around by-catch surfaced in August 2016 near Prince Rupert, not far north of the location of the 2013 incident. The righteous indignation of the commercial fishers involved is typical of the attitudes that have prevailed for at least 25 years I have been associated with commercial fisheries subject to release of steelhead. The only difference is the 2016 incident resulted in charges, although efforts to learn of the disposition of those charges have yet to bear fruit.
In the net fishing areas the Stamp River summer steelhead traverse near their ultimate destination I have never seen any enforcement staff. That, together with the aforementioned regulation differences between divergent areas of the BC coast, leaves the treatment of steelhead wide open to continuing non-compliance. Here’s a couple of example photographs to illustrate that point. This is a First Nations seine vessel brailing a large catch of sockeye in the upper end of Alberni Inlet in June 2015. Brailing is a requirement but the idea is the brailed fish are to be carefully sorted and all non-target species released. Well, the catch was being brailed alright but directly into the fish hold with no effort to sort anything. Note the number of dead fish tangled in the net and the number belly up still waiting to be brailed. In spite of me being within ten meters while taking dozens of pictures, no one on board the vessel showed any concern over what they were doing.
Am I being unfair or biased in my criticism? I think not. Consider a slide presented by a high ranking Conservation and Protection Division (C&P) representative at DFO’s South Coast Division post season review in December 2016.
The second and third bullets speak volumes. I challenge anyone to produce credible evidence of any monitoring of the fisheries I am speaking to here, let alone “enhanced monitoring”. “Observed compliance declines in commercial salmon fisheries” is considered a success? And, about that “improved catch reporting, accountability and verification”. The memo apparently didn’t reach Port Alberni.
Now for the ultimate steelhead eye poke. The Fisheries Act, the overarching legislation governing all fisheries in Canada, states:
Obstructing passage of fish or waters
- 29(1) No person shall erect, use or maintain any seine, net, weir or other fishing appliance that
- (a)unduly obstructs the passage of fish in any Canadian fisheries waters, whether subject to any exclusive right of fishery or not; or
- (b)obstructs more than two thirds of the width of any river or stream or more than one third of the width of the main channel at low tide of any tidal stream.
- Marginal note: Removal (2)The Minister or a fishery officer may order the removal of or remove any seine, net, weir or other fishing appliance that, in the opinion of the Minister or fishery officer, results in an obstruction referred to in paragraph (1)(a) or (b).
Marginal note: Tidal streams (3) For the purposes of paragraph (1)(b), if a tidal stream has no main channel at low tide, then the tidal stream’s width is considered to be the width of its main channel.
As I’ve noted in previous messages on this site, the primary net fishing area for First Nations fishers harvesting sockeye in the June – July period when summer steelhead run timing overlaps are most likely to occur is the tidal reach of the lower Somass River from just downstream of the Port Alberni pulp mill to the Highway 4 bridge crossing. The distance is about 2 km., all of which is readily observable and easily accessible by foot, vehicle or boat. An enforcement officer could enjoy a coffee at the concession stand at Clutesi Haven Marina, or sit in his vehicle anywhere along a kilometre of highway upstream or downstream and witness flagrant violation of the these Fisheries Act regulations every day the fishery is open. The marina is not exactly out of sight, out of mind. It is immediately adjacent to Highway 4, a stone’s throw from the town center and probably the busiest of any marina on the entire west coast of Vancouver Island.
Here’s a few reminders of what the First Nations fishery has become. Four of these five photos were taken within sight of the Clutesi Haven Marina, the fifth about 1 km downstream. The Highway 4 bridge is seen in the background of the first photo.
Such obvious violations of Fisheries Act regulations in such readily observable situations can only be interpreted as untouchable. Welcome to the new reality.
One might assume a river whose steelhead fishery was internationally renowned and revered by icons of British Columbia’s angling history would have attracted the attention of conservation oriented anglers given the unconscionable treatment its fish have been subjected to in recent times. Anglers, guides, sportfishing advocacy organizations of all persuasions, chambers of commerce, local business interests, etc. light their hair on fire over Thompson, Skeena and Dean steelhead in situations that pale to insignificance relative to the Stamp/Somass. DFO hosts meetings of a group known as the Area 23 Harvest Committee every Thursday afternoon, in-season. I’m advised in writing there are two “freshwater river representatives” plus a Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources (FLNRO – the steelhead management people) staff member invited to attend. If any of them do I find it curious that the word steelhead has never appeared in a single one of the DFO bulletins I receive from the Port Alberni office.
In the final analysis I regret to say the wild summer steelhead of the Somass River system are doomed. Short of chemical warfare they won’t be eliminated entirely but the combination of factors conspiring against them – commercial and First Nations fishery harvest, a hatchery program that has homogenized summer and winter stocks, construction of fishways and barrier removals that provided access to areas of the watershed previously the exclusive preserve of wild summer fish – is insurmountable. Failed returns of enhanced sockeye and chinook in years ahead may slow the rate of demise but the legacy of General Noel Money and Roderick Haig-Brown is gone and all but forgotten.