Agreement will allow bands to catch a limited number of sockeye after a weekend of tension over fishing rights
Renegade native fishermen have pulled their nets from the closed Fraser River in a tentative deal with the federal government that allows bands to catch a limited number of vulnerable sockeye for ceremonial and food purposes.
The move follows a weekend of tension between natives and sports fishermen over how to share a limited number of fish, and the laying of charges against four natives who refused to co-operate with the government's conservation measures.
"But the progress we made [on the weekend] is a good sign," Terry Tebb, acting director of Pacific operations for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said Sunday.
The controversy arose last week when the DFO ordered the Fraser River and Georgia Strait closed to sockeye fishing from July 9 to 27 to conserve the early Stuart sockeye. Tebb said half the run is in danger of dying before it reproduces because of low-water levels and warm water temperatures.
Members of the Cheam First Nations and other bands in the Sto:lo Nation defied the conservation measures until noon Saturday, when most removed nets from the mid-Fraser River, upstream from Mission.
In exchange, members of the Sto:lo and Yale bands can catch a maximum of 1,000 early sockeye by a deadline of tonight so native elders can preserve the sockeye on drying racks. Natives say the tradition must be started now for the fish to be dry in time for winter.
Natives, who can still catch chinook with lines or a limited number of dipnets, were also angry that recreational fishermen are permitted to catch chinook with barbless hooks in some parts of the two rivers.
On Friday night, taunting and name-calling erupted between natives and fishermen on the Fraser River, Tebb said. The conflict prompted Tebb to extend one of the areas closed to recreational fishermen, and 10 were given warnings Saturday for fishing in the newly closed sections.
Many of the natives fishing with 25 illegal nets Friday were armed with rifles -- to kill seals that eat fish caught in the nets, they said -- but there was no violence on the weekend.
On Saturday afternoon, DFO officials seized eight native nets still illegally in the water. Six had been abandoned, but two were being operated by four natives who will face charges of fishing during a closed period under the federal fisheries act, said Tebb.
Natives and DFO officials will meet again Tuesday, when Tebb will show data estimating 50 per cent of early Stuarts will die before they spawn this year.
In a normal season, the pre-spawn death rate is less than 10 per cent. DFO predicts there will be 175,000 early Stuarts in the 1998 run, and hope 97,000 will reach spawning grounds. "That's why we closed the river, to meet that number," said Tebb, who added that native fisheries have already killed 15,000 early Stuarts.
Cheam band former chief Corkey Douglas complimented Tebb for compromising on the dry-rack fishery, but said the band would have to see the DFO's evidence before agreeing to stop fishing for early Stuarts for the rest of the season. "We don't feel there's a [conservation] concern if the sports fishery is still out there. If there was a real concern, they'd have a full shutdown and not just certain sections of the river," said Douglas, 40, whose sister, June Quipp, is now Cheam chief.
Douglas, also a fisherman, said the catch-and-release measures used by sports fishermen to release accidentally snagged early Stuarts often kill them.
But Tebb is optimistic a deal can be struck, and said the dry-rack fishery deal was a good one for the DFO. He explained that natives were fishing illegally in the mid-Fraser, in the Agassiz and Rosewall areas, where there are many sockeye. But the so-called dry-rack fishery will only be permitted in the Fraser Canyon, between Hope Bridge and Yale, where there are fewer sockeye to catch.
The 1,000 early Stuarts will be in addition to 500 already caught this season for dry-racks. Before the DFO knew how small the early Stuart run would be this year, they had targeted 5,000 early Stuarts for dry-racking.
That's a good compromise, considering Ottawa and native bands have not yet signed a valid agreement on regulating the 1998 fishery, Tebb said.
Commercial fishermen do not operate on the Fraser River at this time of year.
Cheam band members remove nets from river
Native fishermen defying a federal ban on salmon fishing removed their nets from the Fraser River yesterday -- but they warned that their protest may not be over. Department of fisheries and oceans officers patrolled the shore and water as members of the Cheam band removed sockeye nets from several locations along the Fraser River east of Chilliwack.
The agreement to remove the nets was reached Friday evening after a day-long meeting between fisheries officers and band members, who said they expect the ban to be enforced equally against sports fishermen.
"I think as long as the sportsmen are off the river from the mouth up,then we will abide by it," said band member Isaac Aleck, one of several fishermen removing his net from the river yesterday afternoon. "As long as the sportsmen are out, we'll be out."
The fishing ban was issued last Wednesday to protect a vulnerable run of sockeye. The run is threatened by unusually warm water temperatures and record-low water levels.
Members of the band say the ban conflicts with their traditional harvest of sockeye. They say there are limited days to catch the fish so they can be wind-dried, a traditional method of curing the fish. Fishermen began setting their nets Wednesday night and, at the height of the dispute, there were as many as 25 in the water, said Robert Martinolich, acting director of conservation and protection for the DFO. It's too early to tell what effect the fishing will have on the sockeye population, he said.
Fishermen who removed their nets yesterday were allowed to keep the fish, and their nets were not seized, Martinolich said. Two nets left in the river unattended were seized.
Although some of the fishermen carried rifles, there were no threats made against authorities, Martinolich said. It's common for fishermen to carry guns, to use against seals, he said. "The co-operative atmosphere between the DFO and the Cheam is right now the best it's been in quite a while," he said.
The fishing ban covers the Rosedale and Agassiz areas and includes all salmon species. It applies to recreational and native fishing. But band members hauling in their nets yesterday claim that such bans are not enforced against sports fishermen angling with hooks.
They also decry catch-and-release methods, saying salmon die from damaged gills after being caught.
Several non-native fishermen who weren't aware of the ban were ordered to stop fishing yesterday, Martinolich said.
Another meeting with Cheam band members is scheduled for Tuesday, when fisheries officers hope to convince the natives of the sensitivity of the sockeye run, with scientific data from the Pacific Salmon Commission.