Charges laid against B.C. anglers who took part in an illegal demonstration fishery on the Fraser River near Chilliwack in 2020 were dropped recently.
One of the anglers who was charged with ‘fishing for salmon during a closed time’ was Nathan Bootsma of Chilliwack, who is a member of the Fraser River Sportfishing Alliance.
The demonstration on Sept. 9, 2020 was organized by the Fraser River Sportfishing Alliance (FRSA) and the Fraser Valley Salmon Society (FVSS) to secure their rights to a public fishery.
Bootsma said their court date was supposed to have been in December 2022.
“We had been prepared to go to court and had a lawyer who felt we had a strong argument,” Bootsma said.
A GoFundMe account ‘Save the public Fraser River fishery’ was launched by the FVSS to support the FRSA, raising $17,850 in its first month to cover legal costs of the five anglers charged.
Eventually the account had more than $50,000 in it with 209 individuals and businesses chipping in to protect the public fishery.
Then fast forward to December 2022, Bootsma was notified by their lawyer that the charges had been quietly dropped by Crown.
“It’s important to know that the people who were out there were not lawbreakers. We are people who want the best for the resource and wanted clear communication with DFO (Fisheries and Oceans Canada),” Bootsma.
Now that he’s had time to reflect he hopes the Sportfishing Alliance will be seen as an organization that voices anglers’ concerns.
“We care deeply about the resource, and we want to protect and enjoy it but due to mismanagement, we haven’t been able to enjoy it in a long, long time,” Bootsma said.
At the time of the demonstration, the Fraser had been closed to salmon fishing specifically, as a conservation measure.
It’s a key point.
“The river was open to sturgeon fishing or other species in the river at the time,” Bootsma underlined.
Boats could be seen lined up at the Island 22 boat launch early on the morning of Sept. 8, 2022, ready to shuttle anglers from across the Lower Mainland to a gravel bar to take part in the bar-fishing demonstration.
Most of the anglers were using bar fishing technology to selectively target certain species of fish, and to avoid salmon, the species of concern.
“We were proving we could do that. I caught a couple of pikeminnows and that was it.”
Why does he think he was one of those charged?
“Bad luck,” Bootsma replied. The officers came across the river to their gravel bar first to where they had set up a large fishing area.
Then they started handing out tickets.
Earlier on shore, a DFO fishery officer from the Conservation & Protection branch Fraser East detachment, was on-site reading anglers the riot act after they registered and headed toward the river.
“Just so you know this was not an approved or sanctioned fishery,” fishery officer Mike Fraser warned some of the fishermen who showed up that day.
The event had not been authorized by DFO but the anglers were not out to target salmon, Bootsma said.
Their case was going to be based on the argument that they “have a right to fish as Canadians,” and should have been able to fish for other species other than salmon, from pikeminnow to sturgeon.
A big source of the group’s frustration was not having a single salmon-harvesting opportunity for recreational fishers on the Lower Fraser that season at all.
Prior to the demonstration, they had formally requested a bar-fishing test fishery opening from DFO to prove the method could be selective, with a shorter leader, heavy weights, and single, barbless hook from a ixed rod.
They had hoped to be authorized for 300 pieces from the late-run chinook but had been for turned down by DFO due to conservation concerns for dwindling sockeye, and the need to provide an FSC (food, social, ceremonial) chinook opening for First Nations.
Bootsma said ultimately they were relieved the way it all ended “in a positive way,” with no charges for the ticketed anglers, but part of the problem is the inability of the sportfishing sector to communicate effectively with DFO.
“They’re not willing to the come to the table. That’s why we did what we did - to open the lines of communication. We are the first people who want to stop fishing for conservation concerns.
“It should be fair for every Canadian to enjoy the resource after conservation concerns have been met.”
DFO officials did not respond to a request for comment in the wake of the charges being dropped.
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