Restrictions on First Nations fisheries have created what Seabird Island called a ‘complex and troubling’ conversation with the DFO, after the Big Bar rock slide blocked salmon from returning to their spawning areas on the Fraser River.
The slide, found in June northwest of Kamloops on the Fraser River, has created a five-metre tall waterfall that is stopping spawning fish from moving through the river. Experts are currently transferring some salmon via helicopter, and working to dismantle the new waterfall to create a new fish passage on the edge of the river.
The impacts of the slide, along with the low numbers of sockeye salmon being caught in test fisheries, has created a tension between First Nations fisheries and the DFO for the summer fishing season.
“It’s been extremely complex and troubling to come to an agreement between Stó:lō Fishers and the DFO on a fish plan this summer,” a post on the Seabird Island Band Facebook page read. “There is very little likelihood that we will be able to access any sockeye fishing.”
A stringent fishing plan was developed with information from band member and fish representative Tyrone McNeil. The goal is that it would allow for fishing from Indigenous people, but still meet the DFO’s conservation needs.
“The plan that you see was put together by our fisheries technicians based on all the criteria the DFO is currently asking for in terms of protecting certain stocks and having a little bit more access to other stocks,” McNeil said. “I’m fully expecting it to be endorsed by the DFO because it’s based on their rules, including any considerations around the Big Bar slide.”
The plan allows for chinook fishing on Aug. 8 (an eight hour drift with an 18-hour set net), Aug. 25 (an 18 hour drift with a 48-hour set net) and continuous fishing after Aug. 26 until other salmon species restrictions kick in. Sockeye salmon fishing could be allowed on those days, although that would be dependent on a sockeye management plan.
“The sockeye just aren’t showing up at all, and that’s a huge concern for all of us,” McNeil said. “Nobody could have predicted that.”
The band was set to meet with DFO representatives Tuesday afternoon (Aug. 6), but that meeting was rescheduled. The band hoped to meet with the DFO Wednesday morning (Aug. 7) for approval of the plan.
However, McNeil said the plan shouldn’t need a meeting with the department of fisheries to go ahead.
“All we need is their endorsement of the plan that we put together with their restrictions and considerations,” he said. “We shouldn’t need a meeting for them to agree to that.”
According to McNeil, the band’s experience with the DFO has been tainted with “white privilege,” as he feels other fisheries have taken priority over First Nations rights.
“They’re trying to play us off on each other, so that we’re busy arguing and not fishing,” he said. “And in the meantime, the industrialized, commercialized, recreational, marine fishery continues to go unfettered.”
Currently, recreational salmon fishing is closed in the Fraser River until at least Aug. 23. Chinook fishing in the Harrison River is expected to open Sept. 1.
The commercial Chinook troll fishery is set to open Aug. 20, while coho and pink fisheries opened July 1, with a small closure at the end of July.
“We haven’t even been in the water this year,” McNeil said about the First Nations fishers. “It’s significant to us because when we’re on the river fishing, we’re teaching our children how to fish, so we’re passing along inter-generational information about specific areas of the river.”
First Nations communities would curtail their fisheries if the numbers aren’t there, McNeil added, but having to watch commercial fisheries go forward while First Nations fisheries wait doesn’t move towards reconciliation in an effective way.
“DFO is taking that ability away from us to transfer that knowledge in an effective way,” he continued. “I think it’s going to have to come to the point where we get more proactive, and we’re out there in demonstration fisheries to catch DFO’s attention. They’re doing social and cultural harm to us as an entire people.”