The federal government is investigating what anglers in Northern B.C. are calling a deceitful act of illegal salmon fishing involving a Terrace-area lodge and leaders of high-profile American conservation organizations.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans investigated the complaint Aug. 12 on the Ecstall River, a lower tributary of the Skeena roughly 40 kilometres southeast of Prince Rupert. Officers observed fishing in the closed river but did not lay charges when the party presented a food-fishing permit issued by the local Lax Kw’alaams band.
The Komaham Lodge, a private retreat owned by Bass Pro Shops, which hosted the group, later said the fishing was part of joint research project with the band on low salmon stocks.
During the DFO’s second consecutive year of extreme conservation measures prohibiting all recreational fishing for chinook salmon throughout the Skeena watershed, the incident has prompted calls for action from several B.C. conservation groups, and outraged the local angling community.
“It’s a joke. It’s window dressing of the highest order,” said Bob Hooton, a local angler and retired biologist and former B.C. environment ministry fisheries section head for the Skeena region.
“There was never an intention to do research, it was just a cover to do what they really wanted to do — rip out a bunch of chinook salmon.”
In a letter responding to concerns from anglers, the Komaham Lodge identified some of its guests as a former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, now CEO of Ducks Unlimited, and the president of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation.
Guido Rahr, president of the Oregon-based Wild Salmon Center, was identified as giving a presentation to the group, but in an email to Black Press Media he clarified his participation was by phone. He has never visited the Komaham Lodge, he said.
Efforts to reach other members of the party were unsuccessful.
The lodge’s letter defended the fishing as part of a project to build relationships with local First Nations by gathering and sharing much-needed data on king and silver salmon (the American names for chinook and coho) as no return or spawning data is available for many lower tributaries of the Skeena River. The letter stated the Lax Kw’alaams had freely issued the six-day fishing permit for the “cutting edge” study.
In an email Komaham Lodge management maintained the primary goal of the gathering was to help find positive solutions to the salmon crisis.
“The Komaham Lodge donated the lodge and trip expenses to host the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation in an effort to advance key conservation issues,” the email read.
“The Lodge openly communicated with the DFO and First Nations and obtained necessary permits. A First Nations fisheries biologist accompanied the group.”
But federal fisheries’ North Coast Acting Director Amy Wakelin, speaking for the vacationing director, Colin Masson, denied the department’s involvement, further adding they were unaware an arrangement had been made between the other parties.
“We have not approved any scientific research on the Ecstall,” Wakelin said. “Normally people would submit an application for a scientific licence and that did not happen.”
In regards to the permit, she added, First Nations are allowed to designate persons to fish on their behalf for food, social and ceremonial purposes, but a catch-and-release research exercise as described by the Komaham Lodge would not qualify.
“We don’t believe that the designation in this instance was consistent with the intent and spirit of bringing food into the community,” Wakelin said.
Representatives from Lax Kw’alaams could not be reached for comment.
In an email to Hooton Aug. 21, prior to going on holiday, Masson wrote Bass Pro Shops had contacted an employee at DFO regarding the concept of a research project. He went on to write that Lax Kw’alaams later acknowledged they were trying to develop a working relationship with the Komaham Lodge in an attempt to build an assessment program.
Anglers and conservationists worry arrangements like these will do nothing to advance understanding of threatened salmon stocks, but rather allow wealthy anglers a way to circumvent conservation laws.
This perception only deepened when a photo of nine private jets, parked at the Terrace airport, began circulating on social media at the time of the fishing excursion.
|This photo of private jets parked at the Terrace airport began circulating on social media mid August (Facebook photo)|
In a letter to DFO, BC Wildlife Federation President Harvey Andrusak called for a transparent investigation into the possible abuse of First Nations fishing rights by non-Indigenous people. “It has the potential to seriously undermine the regulatory framework for angling and hunting in B.C.…beyond just fishing,” he wrote.
He added angling in a closed area can be justified by collecting meaningful biological data, but pointed out the data collected in August consisted only of length and weight measurements —“hardly useful for population estimation, the purported objective.”
Hooton, who’s led efforts among Northwest anglers to get answers and assurances from DFO, said the scenario is the first he’s seen after a 37-year career with the province’s fish and wildlife section.
“Nothing comes close,” Hooton said. “I wouldn’t have spent any time on this if I thought the outcome would be inconsequential. This is precedent setting. No doubt about it.”
Meanwhile, lawyers for the SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, which describes the Skeena river system as one of North America’s last remaining intact watersheds, are looking into the legality of the Lax Kw’alaams permit.
“So far DFO is saying they don’t think it’s illegal and that it’s just a loophole in the permit system, but…it becomes the Wild West of fisheries management, where if you have some sort of arrangement or you have money to purchase one of these permits from a First Nation, you essentially have the same rights as First Nations to harvest fish,” said Executive Director Greg Knox
“Where does it end? Who’s accountable, ultimately, to managing the resource and ensuring the salmon populations are protected?”