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Fraser River - Troubled Waters

The struggle over salmon fishing

More on the Fraser River:
Fraser River:
Caring for a Great Resource

Osprey health indicates water quality

Cariboo Road:
Gold seekers open the interior of British Columbia

Enhancing Creek to Creek:
Uniting to save the Fraser River

Changing Faces:
Immigration trends in British Columbia

Fowl Territory:
Farmers profit by feeding migrating birds

Mountain Marshlands:
Rehabilitation of interior wetlands

A fine mess:
Restoration of a riparian habitat

Stream Makers:
Preparing a nursery for salmon

Tooth or Consequences:
Making good neighbours of beavers

Troubled Waters:
The struggle over salmon fishing

Waste Not:
Poultry manure is recycled into non-polluting pellets

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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