Dan FergusonBlack Press
A lawsuit that aims to shut down sport fishing for chinook salmon bound for the Fraser River has been launched by a group that includes Seabird Island First Nation.
Seabird has joined the Katzie, and Kwantlen First Nations in a legal challenge of the way the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) manages spring chinook salmon on the Fraser.
The three Fraser River First Nations are asking for an order that halts sport fishing off the coast of Vancouver Island because, they say, the recreational anglers there are taking too much from the spring chinook stocks that are heading for the Fraser River.
They issued a joint statement Tuesday that said DNA analysis of scale samples collected from fish caught in the marine sports fishery show chinook are being caught in “substantial” numbers.
“Analysis also shows that more are being killed after being caught and then released” the statement said.
The statement went on to say the decision to take court action was made after some Fraser River First Nations members were charged for harvesting a single spring chinook for a First Salmon Ceremony.
Chief Susan Miller of the Katzie First Nation said DFO is giving priority to sports fishermen over First Nations.
“While we sit on the banks of the Fraser River to conserve these fish for our future generations, sports fishermen are out there taking thousands for recreation,” Miller said.
Councillor Les Antone of the Kwantlen First Nation said going out and fishing for spring chinook to begin each season is a part of First Nations culture and way of life.
“Our Elders crave these fish, and many of our ceremonies and teachings revolve around the spring chinook,” Antone said.
“We are concerned about our food security, but also our ability to pass on the important practices and traditions around the spring chinook to our younger and future generations.”
Jay Hope, Seabird Island Corporate Affairs Director said the lawsuit comes after several years of trying to negotiate on a “Nation-to-Nation basis” with DFO.
“Unfortunately, DFO has refused to engage with us in any meaningful way,” Hope said.
“They chose to ignore us (so) we have no choice but to take legal action to protect the spring chinook and our rights.”
Legal action comes after allocation swap proposal generates resistance
The legal action come after a controversial proposal that would have transferred part of the Fraser River chinook allocation from recreational fishermen to First Nations groups was sidelined by a predicted poor return of chinook salmon.
Last month, Jeff Grout, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) regional resource manager of salmon, said the final in-season assessment was predicting a chinook return to the Fraser River of about 43,000 this season.
That is below the minimum threshold of 45,000, considered the “lowest zone of abundance” below which stricter measures are taken to preserve fish stocks.
“As a result, the department is implementing management actions for First Nations, recreational and commercial fisheries that are intended to substantially reduce impacts on Fraser chinook stocks of concern” Grout said.
On the Fraser River, Grout said First Nations food, social and ceremonial fisheries will be reduced.
The allocation swap proposal was put forward by First Nations representatives during a series of meetings with DFO in January, March and April to consult on conservation and harvest planning for Fraser River salmon.
The proponents cited the the 1990 Sparrow case where the Supreme Court of Canada called for a “generous, liberal interpretation” of the aboriginal right to fish the Fraser River and said that “any allocation of priorities after valid conservation measures have been implemented must give top priority to Indian food fishing.”
The court decision said that if there was only enough fish to meet First Nations needs after conservation limits were set, “then all the fish available after conservation would go to the Indians according to the constitutional nature of their fishing right.”
A newly-formed coalition of Fraser River fishing guides, recreational anglers and industry reps has been formed to oppose altering allocations at their expense.
The Fraser River Sportfishing Alliance (FRSA) has made three demands, calling on Fisheries to “manage the Fraser River salmon fishery in an equitable fashion that recognizes the rights of sport anglers,” to promise that the recreational fishing allocation of salmon should not be transferred to “another sector” and that the “tremendous economic value of the recreational Fraser River salmon fishery … be recognized.
The amounts allocated to different user groups vary depending on the type and number of available fish, but a look at one popular category of chinook shows First Nations fishermen have received the largest share.
Figures provided to Black Press by DFO for 2010 to 2014 show that on average, First Nations fishing the Fraser River were allocated roughly 80 per cent of “Spring 5-2 and Summer 5-2,” the larger five-year-old chinook that have spent two years in fresh water.
During the same period, recreational fishermen on the Fraser were allocated 11 per cent.