Fraser River - Troubled Waters
The struggle over salmon fishing
There has been a dramatic reduction in the number of salmon returning
from the Pacific Ocean to spawn in the Fraser River. This reduction
is vitally important to fishers, Native peoples, and people who
fish for fun. The Fraser accounts for more than half of all the
salmon that return to British Columbia.
Because salmon are so valuable to commercial fishers, Natives,
and the tourism industry that provides lodging and boats to
sportfishers, there is much argument about what is the cause
of this reduction. The three groups often blame each other
for killing too many fish.
Commercial fishing is done from boats a few kilometres off
the coast. The fish are caught while they prepare to enter
the Fraser and migrate upstream to lay eggs in little nests
of gravel that they dig by swishing their tails. The commercial
boats are so numerous and so efficient that they catch their
yearly limit in just a few hours.
The Native fishers use nets set in the river itself, taking
their share from the fish who escape the big nets of the commercial
fishing fleet. Some commercial fishers and sportfishers accuse
the Native fishers of taking more than their fair share of
fish that managed to enter the river.
Sportfishers and the businesses that provide them rooms, boats,
and guides, often accuse both the commercial and the Native
fishers of overfishing. However, the sportfishers are also
blamed by some fishery scientists for killing too many fish
instead of catching and releasing them.
All the fishers say that the forest industry is to blame for
spoiling the spawning beds. Water runoff from the hillsides
stripped of trees carries silt into the streams. The silt plugs
up the gravel beds, preventing the salmon from building their
nests and denying the salmon eggs the clean, oxygen-rich water
they need if they are to hatch.
The one thing all sides seem to agree upon is that too many
fish are being killed, and that government regulation of the
salmon fishery has not been effective. West Coast salmon fishers
fear that the Pacific salmon fishery may collapse entirely,
as did the cod fishery on Canada’s East Coast.
One expert on the issue is Carl Walters, Professor of Fisheries
at the University of British Columbia. He has studied salmon
for 26 years, and himself enjoys catching and releasing salmon
in the Fraser River.
Professor Walters says the cause of the salmon collapse is
that too many big, efficient salmon fishing boats have been
licensed by the Canadian government.
He also says the sportfishers are responsible for much of
the destruction, and that salmon camps and guides should insist
that their customers release their fish alive. Professor Walters
believes that the sportfishers are really interested in the
adventure and excitement of hooking the big fish, and will
not stay away if they are asked to release the fish. Many sportfishers
have been releasing their catches for years and they have not
lost their enthusiasm for the sport.
The Natives, says Professor Walters, have almost no effect
on the number of fish that survive to spawn in the river. Natives
fished the Fraser for salmon for thousands of years, without
damage. Despite the accusations of some commercial and sportfishers,
he says, the Natives still do not catch enough salmon to make
a difference. The damage is done well before the salmon reach
the nets of the Natives. "They are first in rights, and
last in line," declares Professor Walters.
The only possible solution, according to Professor Walters,
is to "cut back drastically in the size of the commercial
fleet." But, he says, the Canadian government is doing
a bad job of controlling the size of the fleet and in setting
limits on how many fish the fleet can kill.
While the situation is critical, there is reason to hope that
the salmon will recover in numbers if solutions are found to
the problem of overfishing. Professor Walters points to the
fact that the Fraser River salmon were nearly destroyed entirely
at the beginning of the 20th century when a massive rock slide
at Hell’s Gate blocked their migration up the river. A huge
fishway was constructed to bypass the slide.
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