There aren’t many issues in the British Columbia fisheries world that bring out more passion than daring to suggest all is not as it appears with respect to First Nations fisheries. The comments following my recent post, Political Correctness, are evidence enough but some of the personal attack messages received via email were over the top. Putting all that aside, here is an attempt to bring those who might be interested into the picture of where Skeena steelhead sit in relation to management of the First Nations fisheries that bear on them
I’ve said previously the commercial fishery that operates on the north coast of the province is comprised of a significant proportion of vessels owned and/or operated by First Nations people. That proportion is increasing steadily over time as the federal government continues to transfer boats and licenses to FN fishers. I am not criticizing replacement of non-FN commercial fishers by FN members. It is not racism or bigotry to state that the perception there is a commercial fishery conducted in tidal waters by non-FN fishers at the expense of inland, non-tidal waters FN fishers has no basis in fact.
Thus far this summer there has been a very limited commercial fishery bearing on Skeena bound fish because chinook (virtually all wild) and sockeye (virtually all comprised of a single enhanced stock) have been in low abundance. Some buy the line there has been no commercial fishery. Not true. Skeena sockeye, chinook and steelhead are/were caught in our domestic commercial fisheries that operate in the narrow band between Southeast Alaska and what DFO refers to as Area 4 (i.e. the more immediate approaches to the Skeena). See my post of July 24 (A Broader Perspective) for a refresher on where I’m talking about here. That wedge of Area 3 that attracts a lot of seine fishing is obviously right on the highway to the Skeena. Then there is Southeast Alaska itself where there is a very obvious conspiracy of silence (even moreso than in BC) with respect to steelhead catch reporting and where none of the steelhead ever caught originate from Alaska.
Now to that other much less well known fishery. An astute observer of the weekly bulletins issued by the DFO people responsible for the north coast fisheries might have noticed a statement way down on page 9 of the 14 page bulletin dated August 8, 2017:
“Now that the Skeena sockeye Total Return to Canada estimate has eclipsed 625,000 (the trigger point Skeena Nations agreed to allow full FSC harvesting of sockeye in the Skeena River and in Area 4), Skeena First Nations are now fishing for sockeye in the Skeena River and in the marine approaches to the Skeena (Area 4)”
That certainly caught my attention and prompted me to ask some very specific questions of those responsible for issuing that information. Here’s a sample of some of my questions and the answers that were surprisingly quick in arriving.
- Q – In a year like this when steelhead abundance is obviously low, has anyone raised that as a concern? Ans – “Nope. Steelhead management is a provincial mandate……..steelhead harvesting by First Nations during Food, Social and Ceremonial fisheries is not covered within Aboriginal Fisheries Strategy agreements and there is no reporting requirements under those agreements. If there are conservation concerns identified, I would suggest the Province raise the issue with the various Skeena First Nations and the recreational sector and provide management alternatives to address the issue.”
- Q – Does DFO keep track of the number of gill net and seine vessels fishing on each day? (Note that fishing is permitted seven days per week.) Ans – “DFO does not require this information unless the vessels are fishing during a commercial fishery. There are no commercial fisheries in Area 4 this year.”
- Q – What can you tell me about the catch reporting requirements for this year or any previous years where AFS agreements similar to 2017 were in place? Ans – “Catch reporting requirements are in every license issue by the Department. The frequency of reporting depends on the fishery. In years such as this, weekly in-season catch reporting for salmon is provided to DFO. This information is protected and cannot be distributed. A summary of food fish harvest is provided in the post-season review. Steelhead is a provincially managed species and is not included in the FSC licenses issued by DFO. Some steelhead information is provided with the catch reporting but it is not a DFO requirement. I can say in a general sense it is likely that very few steelhead are harvested in the Skeena First Nation food fishery.”
OK, lets be clear. The FN fisheries that occur, whether in-river or at sea, are based on agreements that are unavailable to you and I because there is “protected information” in them. The conditions of license that apply to a FN owned/operated gill net fishing vessel during a conventional commercial fishing opening (e.g. short sets, short nets, fully operational recovery boxes, non-retention and non-possession of steelhead, compulsory catch reporting) do not exist when that same vessel is fishing in an FSC fishery. In-river fisheries in the Skeena itself are treated similarly. Do people know that the FN gill nets that are now fully sanctioned to be out there seven days per week in Area 4, are fishing in the highest steelhead interception area of all the commercial fishing areas in British Columbia? There is no on the grounds monitoring, much less enforcement, even if there were any rules. FSC fishery participants would seem to have some sort of catch reporting system (for salmon only) but no one is allowed to see that information except, possibly, if summarized and distributed in a post season review months after the fishing season is over. Can you say data quality? Even then, steelhead are not included (but DFO says ……”it is likely that very few steelhead are harvested in the Skeena First Nation food fishery”!!!). This is called fisheries management? Does anyone else think that the gap between the boardrooms, computer screens and the fishing grounds might be widening? Meanwhile, prevailing public opinion leans heavily toward conviction that FN fisheries are unjustifiably constrained and the FN community in general is at a huge disadvantage solely attributable to the non-FN community?
Remember, the Skeena commercial and FN fisheries are now targeted on a single enhanced stock of a single species – sockeye originating from the artificial spawning channels entering Babine Lake. After 140 years of mixed stock commercial fishing, propped up by all those enhanced sockeye over the past 60 years, find me one other of the dozens of other sockeye stocks once distributed over the vastness of the Skeena watershed that isn’t a serious conservation concern by DFO’s own standards. The same goes for lost and forgotten chum salmon and numerous chinook stocks. The Skeena FN community has been fully involved in that outcome since the fish canning industry began its rise to prominence in the latter quarter of the 1800s. More recently, steelhead that were never of value to the commercial industry historically and never a targeted food fish traditionally have risen to a position of status in a business community focused on what is perceived to be a wonderfully clean and sustainable recreational fishery. (That is another story long overdue for serious scrutiny.) All this as the commercial fishing industry continues down the path to economic oblivion while being replaced by FN fisheries on both sides of a tidal boundary. Welcome to the world of steelhead management, otherwise known as Palestinians versus Israelis or, if you prefer, classic oxymorons.
I’ll leave this with a quote passed on by a long time friend who toiled at high levels of government as a dedicated environmental protectionist for many years. It comes from Thomas King’s award winning 2012 book The Inconvenient Indian. “The fact of Native existence is that we live modern lives informed by traditional values and contemporary realities and that we wish to live those lives on our own terms.” Thomas King is a FN member.