Three different BC salmon conservation groups say that north coast fishermen have thrown back 1.37 million pounds of Chum Salmon – enough to fill 40 transport trucks – while rushing to catch as many Pink Salmon as they can within the 16-hour window. Regulations say that Chum Salmon have to be thrown back as quickly as possible, but fishermen who are preoccupied with the Pink Salmon are leaving the Chum out of the water for too long before being thrown back. The result, say the conservationists, is that about half of the fish do not survive afterwards long enough to spawn, making the problem of depleting Chum stocks even worse.
The Watershed Watch Salmon Society, Raincoast Conservation Foundation, and SkeenaWild Conservation Trust are not putting most of the blame on the fishermen who are actually breaking the rules, but instead are pointing the finger at the Department of Oceans and Fisheries.
“The way they have the system set up now, its a race for fish. Instead of slowing things down by going to a quota fishery . . .they’re having these one day openings where you have to fish as much as possible inside that time,” says the executive director of SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, Greg Knox.
Because of the low stocks of Chum Salmon in the Skeena and Nass watersheds, Fishermen are required to throw back the Chum that get caught in their nets while fishing for fish like Pink Salmon. The conservation groups are arguing that the 16-hour time limit system creating conditions where fisherman are more concerned with getting Pink Salmon on their boats so that they can make a living, rather than getting Chum Salmon off them like they are required to.
Not only do they believe that the DFO is triggering this problem, they also believe that it is doing a poor job of stopping it too. According to Knox, DFO’s enforcement has been inadequate, or at least ineffectual, at stopping fishermen from violating the rules.
“They often don’t have officers out there monitoring the fisheries, and when they do find infractions they don’t hold fishermen accountable; they don’t make them go back to the docks, don’t give out many fines. They’re not very strict on enforcing the rules,” says Knox.
The chief of resource management for DFO for the North Coast, Dale Gueret, outright refutes Knox’s characterization of DFO’s enforcement. He says that DFO does acknowledge that there is a real problem with a minority of fishermen who are not following the rules, and says they are taking what steps they can to deal with the situation.
Gueret says that while local DFO officers are trying to deal with the Chum problem, conservation groups often set a very high bar for enforcement that they say must be met, even if its unrealistic.
The most prominent solution to the Chum problem being proposed by the conservation groups is simple: DFO needs to move the Pink Salmon fishery to a set quota system, where fishermen will have a longer time to catch a set amount of fish and will have more time to follow regulations.
Gueret says that a quota system is “a potential option,” but an option fraught with potential problems. To put in place a quota system they would need a fairly accurate idea how many fish could be expected to return to spawn in a given year. To know this, they would need to have a way of accurately counting the fish that return, like a test fishery, which they don’t have outside the Skeena. But along the coast there are hundreds of inlets where Salmon go to spawn, results from one area may not be accurate in another like they would be in a river.
These logistical problems are why the DFO has gone with the time limit instead, where they can let people fish without risking a damaging depletion in the stocks.
CORRECTIONS: SkeenaWild was did not assert that DFO had no enforcement officers patrolling for violations, just they’re not out often enough, and that surveillance should be done on the actual fishing vessels instead from a distance from their own boats.