Skeena River anglers are alarmed a DFO investigation into the Ecstall River fishing controversy may not result in any charges, nor is the department likely to formally close loopholes that can allow it to happen again.
“This is too big to let die. Something has to be done here,” says Bob Hooton, a Smithers-resident angler and retired B.C. Environment Ministry fisheries section head for the Skeena region.
“You can’t have some deal with whomever wants to pay for fishing privileges, to approach a First Nation and say ‘well, what does it take to get a fishing permit under your communal licence?’”
Last August DFO found guests of the Komoham Lodge, owned by BassPro owner John Morris, fishing for Chinook in the closed Ecstall River, a lower Skeena tributary near Prince Rupert.
DFO did not issue any fines when the group, all believed to be non-Indigenous, showed officers a food-fishing permit issued by the Lax Kw’alaams band. The private lodge claimed the fishing party, comprised mostly of wealthy, high profile Americans, was assembled as part of a relationship-building and scientific-research exercise with the Lax Kw’alaams over low salmon stocks. The fishing party included leaders of wildlife conservation groups, including a former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, now CEO of Ducks Unlimited, and the president of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation.
The lodge said the exercise was approved by DFO.
DFO however quickly denied knowledge of the lodge’s arrangement with the band. The department also confirmed with the Terrace Standard an exercise as described would not meet the intent of a First Nations communal fishing permit.
DFO now appears to have reversed its position. News of the investigation’s conclusion surfaced at a meeting for the Lower Skeena Sport Fishing Advisory Committee March 12. According to the minutes, an attending DFO officer said the file is closed, as the angling was in fact legally permitted through the Aboriginal FSC communal license.
It was noted future communal licenses could be written differently so similar incidents don’t occur in the future.
DFO will not confirm with the Terrace Standard whether the investigation is formally closed, but in a vaguely-worded email a spokesperson said the matter was still in discussion on some level.
“Fishery officers from the Conservation and protection Program continue to work with our internal and external partners to provide clarity and information regarding this situation to all concerned,” it reads. “The objective is to ensure that a full understanding of the intent and communication requirements [of communal licences] is reached with all.”
That’s not good enough for Hooton. Local anglers faced restrictions and closures in last year on prized chinook-bearing rivers, causing deep impacts to a $16.5-million tourism industry vital to the local economy. At the same time, Hooton says, wealthy foreigners were allowed to exploit loopholes for privileged access to the public resource.
Hooton has issued a public letter to Canada’s Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Jonathan Wilkinson, calling for formal warnings to the Komoham Lodge and their fishing guide. He wants to see meaningful regulations with well-known consequences.
“Conservation measures that virtually eliminated the entire chinook salmon recreational fishery throughout the Skeena in 2018 were a bitter pill to swallow, especially given how those measures were implemented,” he wrote. “For the recreational fishing and conservation communities to subsequently witness the Ecstall circumstances took that bitterness to another level. Please provide your immediate and firm commitment there will not be a repeat of Ecstall 2018 there or anywhere else in British Columbia in 2019 and beyond.”
Second only to conservation interests, the First Nations fishery for food, social and ceremonial purposes is given the highest priority among fisheries under federal jurisdiction.
Greg Knox, executive director of the SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, shared the angler’s concern last year, saying it’s crucial the integrity of that First Nations licence be upheld. Otherwise, he said, “It becomes the wild west of fisheries management, where if you have some sort of arrangement or you have money to purchase one of these permits from a First Nation, you essentially have the same rights as First Nations to harvest fish.”
Interview requests to Lax Kw’alaams leadership were not returned.