A letter to the Minister of Fisheries

Dear Minister LeBlanc:

I am a passionate steelhead angler with deep concerns over the management of salmon net fisheries throughout the British Columbia coast. I am also a retired fisheries professional with 37 years of service with the government of British Columbia, mostly in the steelhead management arena. Since retiring I have written two books, “Skeena Steelhead – Unknown Past, Uncertain Future” (2011) and soon to be published “Days of Rivers Past”. In short, I know a little bit about how fisheries management is prosecuted.

Now, for the issue of the moment. Enhanced sockeye stocks returning to the Stamp/Somass river system near Port Alberni on the central west coast of Vancouver Island have been the focus of extensive commercial, First Nations and recreational fisheries for several years. In both 2015 and 2016 the commercial fishing effort has been intensive but the First Nations effort has been literally “off the charts”. I have attended the Somass River on several occasions over the past three years when the FN fishery has been flourishing. An extensive collection of photographs has been carefully labelled and stored to serve as evidence of what I say. My specific concerns and questions are as follows:

FN nets deployed throughout the tidal reaches of the Somass River are generally fished between two boats that cover the entire width of the river. or, failing that, 100% of the migration corridor. Nets are drifted along until the operators decide it is time to attach the two ends of the net and finish off the set in procedures typically followed by commercial fishery seine nets. Nets have been manufactured by local producers to match the cross sectional area of the river and maximize the catch of anything with fins. There is no such thing as any fish being released from these operations. I understand the Fisheries Act to forbid sealing off of an entire river channel. Am I right and, if so, why have I never seen any hint of enforcement of such regulations? I’ll add that the number and, especially, the sophistication of many of the vessels now participating in the fishery is unprecedented. Some FN members must be making a lot of money to be able to finance such impressive custom made boats obviously designed specifically for the river net fishery.
Wild summer steelhead returning to the Somass River system (tributaries of significance are the Stamp and Ash rivers) are in low abundance and their run timing overlaps the sockeye fishery almost entirely. Clearly there is no effort made to accommodate steelhead in the FN fishery, nor in the commercial fishery that extends from the river all the way seaward to Bamfield. I have asked repeatedly (four e-mails sent to your fishery manager in Port Alberni in June and July of this year) for the catch records for steelhead catches by the commercial and FN fisheries. None of those emails has produced a word of reply to my specific questions. In fact the last two of my messages never even received an acknowledgement. This despite the clearly specified requirements listed on the DFO web site about catch reporting for all commercial (and FN) fishery openings for the area.
In at least a dozen trips through the fishing areas in the Somass River and the approach waters during the 2014, 15 and 16 fisheries I have never encountered anyone from DFO or anyone who might be associated with DFO (contractor?). Yet, I’m told by your Port Alberni staff they monitor the fishery closely and are right on top of who’s who with respect to which boats are conventional commercial fishery licensees and which ones are designated to fish with similar gear but on behalf of the plethora of FN members who now enjoy vastly expanded access to the enhanced sockeye returns. How many patrols were conducted by your enforcement (C&P) staff and/or fisheries management staff over any of the past three seasons? What were the results of any such patrols? How many warnings, charges, convictions, etc.?
I see from test fishery data posted on your web site there were 13,728 sockeye and 24 steelhead reportedly caught by the test fishing vessel. That ratio is 572:1. If we apply that same ratio (not unreasonable) to either the FN or the commercial fishery catches there would have been well over 1100 summer steelhead caught. Given my observations of how the commercial and FN fisheries are prosecuted and the distinct lack of presence of anyone monitoring the fishery or enforcing regulations, that implies strongly those fish were all dead. You may be interested to know 1100 wild summer steelhead exceeds the estimated escapement to, not just the Somass/Stamp/Ash system, but the entire Alberni Inlet area. I note also from the weekly bulletins signed off by your Port Alberni staff, the test fishery total for sockeye differs from the web site total (13,728 for test fishery web site vs 8,897 for season end weekly bulletin). Why the discrepancy?

Mr. Minister, mixed stock commercial fisheries are well established forces in the demise of too many fish stocks up and down the BC coast. Our summer steelhead are impacted all the way from Southeast Alaska to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, including such notable areas as the approaches to the Nass, Skeena, Dean and Fraser rivers. The blind eye approach of DFO over its entire history is equally well established although I am comforted to observe that, after at least two decades of flagrant non-compliance with regulations governing treatment and release of non-target species in the Skeena area, there was a concerted effort by your C&P staff to address the situation. Port Alberni can be included on the list of fisheries that have never been on the DFO radar. I submit serious attention to this most distressing situation for the wild summer steelhead of the Port Alberni area is long overdue.


R.S. Hooton
Nanaimo, BC

(The letter was sent on August 25, 2016. No response to date, not even an acknowledgement!)

Update, September 28, 2016. Silence prevails. The next step is to send Minister LeBlanc a hard copy of the above email plus copies of all the unanswered emails sent to the Port Alberni DFO staff earlier this year. What does it take to get DFO to respond. Perhaps copies to the Vancouver Sun?

Comments 4

  • I concur DFO remains virtually non existent in our area 23.Smoke is more visible then fisheries officers!!

  • Great Letter Bob, Please post their reply if you get one.

  • Deafening silence continues. Very frustrating to say the least. Perhaps I can get my MP and/or the Conservative and NDP fisheries critics to poke someone in DFO.

  • Bob
    Thank you for sending this and other letters to the Minister of Fisheries. I have been a regular catch and release flyfisher every September for the lovely steelhead that swim in the Stamp River. Their value to sporsfishers from all over the world should not be compromised as steelhead fishing is a wonderful experience that people are willing to pay for and protect. Please find a solution as soon as possible to Dr Hooten’s concerns about the net fishery before the steelhead run is plundered and lost. My request applies to other valuable steelhead rivers like the Thompson, Bulkley, Babine, Kispiox, Gold, Heber, etc.

    Stewart Brady, Victoria BC.

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