The opening late last week of a first-in-recent-memory sport fishery for sockeye salmon in British Columbia's Lake Osoyoos has raised the ire of First Nations groups.
"The reason why any fishery is possible this year is because of the long-term efforts by the Okanagan Nation to rebuild the sockeye fishery, which was virtually destroyed in the 1930s by a series of dams which were built without recognition or respect for the importance of the salmon fishery to the Okanagan Nation," Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, chairman of the Okanagan Nation Alliance, said in a media release quoted by the Osoyoos Times newspaper.
"We do not oppose sharing the sockeye fishery with non-aboriginal neighbours. But we are fundamentally opposed to DFO's announcement of this recreational fishery," Phillip said. The Osoyoos Times reported that the ONA felt the decision should have been made together after a process of careful consideration.
It does appear, however, that there will be plenty of fish for all.
So far a total of 291,589 sockeye had been counted this year through Tuesday at Wells Dam, the ninth and final Columbia River mainstem hydro project the fish climb over before turning into the Okanogan River in north-central Washington and making the stretch run to Osoyoos Lake. The fish will soon seek spawning grounds above the lake in the Okanagan River.
The river flows south into and then out of the lake, which stretches from British Columbia down into Washington. Because of the large sockeye run anglers have been allowed to retain sockeye up and down the Columbia this year.
The count is already nearly double the record for a season. The previous high count at Wells was 165,334 last year. That followed a count of 134,937 in 2008. The next highest count on a record that goes back to 1977 is 80,054 in 1984.
In its Aug. 11 recreational fishery notice the DFO noted that the return is the highest on record since 1938.
"As a result, Fisheries and Oceans will be opening a new recreational fishing opportunity in Osoyoos Lake," the notice said. The sockeye fishery was opened from Aug. 13 to Aug. 22 during daylight hours only in the waters of the North basin of Osoyoos Lake. The bag limit is two sockeye per day and four in possession with a monthly limit of eight.
The return far exceeds the 60,000 sockeye past Wells Dam targeted in the DFO's annual South Coast Integrated Fisheries Management Plan for meeting spawner objectives (40,000) and providing First Nations food, social and ceremonial fisheries (20,000). That opened the opportunity for allowing a recreation fishery opportunity, said Lester Jantz, acting DFO British Columbia Interior Area director of Fisheries Management in Kamloops.
Aside from 2008-2010, the Wells sockeye counts have only exceeded 60,000 three times since 1977. As recently as 2006 and 2007 the annual counts were only 22,000.
"Nobody was really expecting this out of the blue," Jantz said. Preseason expectations were for a return past Wells of from 120,000 to 130,000 sockeye.
The sport fishery is the "first in recent times," he said. Sockeye were likely caught in sport fisheries prior to the 1950s but through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s the sport catch of sockeye in freshwater was prohibited. The species was reserved during that time for ocean fisheries.
It's only been in the past 20 years that freshwater sport fisheries have been permitted on occasion around the province in the Fraser River and elsewhere, Jantz said.
Because of the relatively short notice, the fishery has not drawn a crowd. Jantz said only about two to six boats per day have been noted during the first few days of the fishery.
"It's more of a local situation," Jantz said. But those that have turned out have done well.
"The people that have been fishing have been getting their daily limit," he said. "It's not too difficult when you know what you're doing to get your limit when there is 200,000 fish coming into the lake." He estimated, given the effort and short timeframe, that fewer than 200 sockeye would be taken in the fishery.
"They're in great shape," Jantz said of the fish. "They're starting to turn pink. They haven't turned fire engine red yet." Most of the fish appear to be holding in the lake to await the cooling of the Okanagan River spawning grounds upstream.
The tribes don't begrudge anglers a share of the bounty but feel the government wrongly made a unilateral decision to open the sport fishery.
"We're not against other fisheries. We're just against the way they went about it," Howie Wright said of the DFO decision making process. He is program manager for the Okanagan Nation Alliance Fisheries Department. Efforts to rebuild salmon stocks in the region have always involved the engagement of the tribes, the government and other stakeholders.
"We've always taken a step-wise approach" in managing the fishery resource, Wright said. But the DFO decision making process involved little discussion with the tribes, he said. The seven member bands of the Okanagan Nation Alliance are Lower Similkameen Indian Band, Okanagan Indian Band, Osoyoos Indian Band, Penticton Indian Band, Upper Nicola Indian Band, Upper Similkameen Indian Band and Westbank First Nation.
"They are still food fishing," Wright said of tribal fishers. They can catch up to 10 percent of the run, as counted at Wells, for food, social and ceremonial purposes. The tribal fishers also a commercial permit to harvest up to 5,000 sockeye.