“I’m gonna fish ‘til I drop dead,” said commercial fisherman Allan Thompson, noting that in his line of work, retirement is a fantasy he’s long since put to rest.
Fish returns and commercial fisheries just aren’t what they used to be, he said. These days, a fisherman is lucky if he can make enough money to last the year.
So when a commercial fishery, projected to be the best in years, opened in the Kitimat Arm of the Douglas Channel just more than two weeks ago, he was dissapointed it closed after only six days.
But according to Dan Wagner, a local fish manager for the department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), the fish didn’t come back to the Kitimat Arm like projected, and conservationists allege many died on their way here.
So although the outlook was reminiscent of the good days of chum returning at first, Wagner said the fishery here closed to ensure the fishing nets didn’t dip into fish needed by other interests like wildlife.
“We just thought we had taken enough,” said Wagner.
But Thompson disagrees, saying the returns still looked good when the fishery closed.
“There were lots of fish,” he said. “We’re really just a spoon in the bucket.”
But despite projections of chum returns reminiscent of 2005-2006 by the DFO, commercial chum caught by all the boats didn’t compare this year.
In 2005, 146,000 chum were caught in the Douglas Channel and in 2006, 45,000 were.
This year’s chum fishery netted about 19,000 chum, Wagner said.
Last year, which Wagner said was one of the worst for returns, 16,012 chum were caught and in 2009, also a poor-return year, 29,000 were netted.
The reason this year had lower chum returns than expected to the Kitimat Arm is because the Gil Island Fishery, which intercepts fish enroute here, had high-chum catches. But, those fish could be going elsewhere, explained Wagner.
(Fish return to their birth-area to spawn, so wild salmon spawned outside Kitimat’s Hatchery would travel to many other streams.)
Initial DFO counts show the Kitimat Arm fishery netted and kept 19,000 chum, 750 sockeye, 870 coho and 3,700 pink and three chinook.
And while chums couldn’t be kept at the Gil Island fishery due to conservation concerns, counts there show a six-day fishery with larger five-to-six-crew seine boats netted 72,499 chums, 706,139 pinks and 25, 903 sockeye among others.
These numbers have spawned outrage amongst B.C. wild salmon activists who allege many of the chum released in the Gil-Island fishery died, and not all were accounted for.
“They’re robbing [Kitimat Arm] fisherman of a valuable catch,” said an ecologist with Watershed Watch Salmon Society, Aaron Hill, who said the DFO practice of relying on fisherman-counted numbers to assess catches means these numbers are likely skewed, and that no one is there to ensure released-fish survive.
“So you have a time-limited competitive fishery, and the fishermen have to catch as many fish as they can in that time,” said Hill. “Its hard to put a high priority to help sort out the chum salmon from the pink salmon.”
But the care taken while sorting and discarding keeps the fish from dying, said Hill, noting there is little incentive for fishermen to care if a fish lives aside from enforcement.
He said random check-ups, which is how the DFO enforces it’s rules now, don’t work. He wants to see independant observers on each boat.
But DFO area chief Dale Gueret. said enforcement in B.C.’s northen waters is working. He said a watcher per boat would suggest all fishermen disobeyed the law, and this is not the case.
Enforcement has observed good and bad behaviour, said Gueret, explaining that several charges were laid in the Gil Island Fishery, but that shouldn’t colour the reputation of responsible fishermen.
But Hill said, too, that the location of this fishery is irresponsible, causing unneeded deaths.
“DFO shouldn’t be allowing this fishery to occur with such a high discard rate,” he said. “They could move fisheries closer to streams where pinks are returning and less (species) are being intercepted.”
This would mean less at-risk wild salmon die, and more Hatchery fish could return to Kitimat.
“Hatchery fish are not wild fish,” he said, explaining that it’s other area rivers and streams which have showed decreased chum counts over years.
Both he and the DFO said this is why the Kitimat Arm fishery is allowed to keep chum, because they’re enhanced.
So the Gil Island fishery is robbing the eco system of salmon it depends on, and Kitimat Arm fishemen of a valuable catch, said Hill.
But Gueret said it’s hard to draw conclusions when it comes to counting fish because there are so many factors at play.
“We don’t have a problem with what the environmentalists are saying,” said Gueret. “We understand that healthy eco systems lead to healthy salmon returns.”
But he’s cautious about jumping to conclusions about where each fish went, and why.
“There’s alot we still don’t know about what drives ocean productivity and concern.” he said.