Yesterday, July 30, I made the journey from my home in Nanaimo across Vancouver Island to follow up on happenings with respect to commercial and First Nations (FN) fisheries targeting enhanced sockeye salmon returning to the Somass River tributaries (i.e. Great Central Lake at the head of the Stamp River and Sproat Lake at the head of the river of the same name). Notices issued by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) managers in their Port Alberni office indicated there would be commercially licensed seine fishing vessels operating in the inlet approaches to the Somass and FN fisheries in the river itself during the day.
A trip down Alberni Inlet over the course of the morning revealed no commercial fishing vessels. Test fishery catches in the week leading to the prescribed opening were pathetic and likely responsible for the absence of interest on the part of commercial fishermen. It was a different story in the lower Somass River though. FN fishermen showed up in numbers as the opening time arrived mid-day.
Something to remember here – the target stock(s) of sockeye are a relatively recent event. They are largely the result of fishway construction at migration obstacles/barriers on both the Stamp and Sproat rivers. Following that came lake enrichment to promote growth of juvenile sockeye whose ancestors never experienced such conditions. The bottom line is there is no historic precedent for the fishery of today. In fact, in my many excursions to these areas in the 1970s and early 1980s, there was no such thing as a FN fishery for sockeye. I don’t believe there was any commercial fishery on those stocks until at least the late years of that time frame and, for certain, there was no recreational fishery at that time.
It has been a sobering exercise to witness the escalation of the FN fishery in the Somass River over just the past three years. The investment in equipment and fishing power to capitalize on the fish supply taxpayers have provided has been impressive. Boats specifically designed to fish the shallow, tidal river reaches with nets constructed to fish the entire cross sectional water column have created what can reasonably interpreted as war on fish. Consider some photos. View them in the context of that section of the Fisheries Act I’ve posted previously.
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.
My primary interest in all of the Port Alberni area business is the fate of the beleaguered summer steelhead. Those fish have been forgotten in the rush for FN access to fish and “fisheries management” and the sheer economics of commercial and recreational fisheries singularly focused on enhanced sockeye and, later in the season, chinook (also enhanced). DFO has some sort of committee that meets each Thursday to develop weekly fishing plans. Those session do not include anyone the least bit familiar with the steelhead of concern here. The summertime focus of the committee is only on sockeye and how many are available to harvest and sell. Words can’t describe how rapidly the FN fishery has evolved and how efficient it has become. It is hardly a match for recreational fishers dragging barbless hooks through distant acres of water. The playing field for conventional commercial fishers isn’t exactly level either. They have to search and strain infinitely more water to find fish in those same distant acres before they funnel into the river where their concentrations are visible and vulnerable to that other steadily escalating fishery. The success of the commercial and recreational fishers of late was abundantly clear from the complete lack of the former and only a remnant fleet of the latter this day.
Every attempt to secure data on steelhead catches by commercial and First Nations fishers has been ignored by DFO. One can go to their fisheries public notices site and read off all the outwardly appearing air tight conditions around catch reporting for every fishery they authorize. Why then am I unable to get answers? It is absurd that DFO can publish such regulations and conditions of licenses and never be seen on the fishing grounds, never at the landing facilities and never respond to formal inquiries about steelhead catches.
DFO’s test fishery data paints a bit of a picture for us. That fishery (a contracted seine vessel) reported catching six steelhead in 48 sets this year. Five of those were caught in back to back sets the same day. Call it one steelhead for every eight sets or (at six sets per day) one for every three days of test fishing. DFO (and probably everyone else) interprets no steelhead as no problem. I look at it as no steelhead is the problem. It is a reflection of their conservation status.
I’ll try one last time to get something on these matters out of DFO. Here’s a copy of the message about to be sent to their west coast leader. If anything comes back it will be shared here.
Regional Director General
Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Pacific Region
Dear Rebecca Reid:
On numerous occasions over the past two years I have attempted to secure information from a variety of sources within DFO regarding steelhead by-catch and related issues in and around the Somass River at Port Alberni. My efforts have included a half dozen messages to Port Alberni DFO staff, two letters to Minister Dominic LeBlanc, another to the Prime Minister and two messages to Minister LeBlanc’s parliamentary secretary. The closest I have come to a response from any of these people is a cryptic, useless acknowledgement from some ministerial underling in Ottawa. Please review the accounts of all these unsuccessful attempts at www.steelheadvoices.com The appropriate posts are dated December 15, 2016, February 26, 2017 and May 2, 2017. More recent e-mail sent to your Resource Manager in the Port Alberni office was acknowledged with a response from a temporary replacement indicating he could not answer any of my questions but that he had referred my inquiry to his supervisor whom I’ve not heard from either.
To reiterate my primary concerns and questions:
- Given that DFO regulations and conditions of license spell out in great detail what the catch reporting procedures are for commercial fishermen, what are the numbers for steelhead catches by gill net and seine vessels in 2016 and 2017 to date? How are such data compiled?
- What regulations or conditions apply to First Nations fishers re non-target species catches and catch reporting?
- Assuming First Nations fishers are required to report their catch, how many steelhead were caught in 2016 and 2017 to date?
- Who compiles reported catch data, how, and what procedures can one follow to be reasonably up to date on such data?
- Given that I have made at least 20 trips on the water to and through the area of concern over the past three summers and never seen any evidence of a DFO presence in any context, I would like to know how DFO monitors the sockeye fishery in the Somass River and its approaches in upper Alberni Inlet.
- Why is there no attempt to deal with nets strung completely across the Somass River when the First Nations fishery is open? Is this not an obvious violation of the Fisheries Act?
- Who represents the interests of steelhead in discussions around their status and fate in the commercial and First Nations fisheries of concern here?
Your early attention to these comments and ongoing questions will be appreciated. Please be aware I have posted this message on my blog so that a broader audience might appreciate how our steelhead resource is being managed today.