First Nations groups in British Columbia are calling on the federal fisheries minister to issue an emergency order to close all sockeye fisheries on the Fraser River.
A joint news release issued by three groups that make up the First Nations Leadership Council says Bernadette Jordan should also declare the stock collapsed while their groups come together to create a strategy to save the fish.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada has estimated returning sockeye would hit a record low this year, with about 283,000 fish or fewer making it from the ocean to their Fraser River spawning grounds.
Just last month, the department estimated 941,000 sockeye would return, though it noted salmon forecasts were highly uncertain, in part because of a lack of understanding of the effects of warming ocean waters.
The council, made up of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, the First Nations Summit and Union of B.C. Indian chiefs, says Indigenous communities that rely on the salmon for food face the greatest impacts, but the department has consistently prioritized commercial fishing.
Representatives with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans were not immediately available for comment.
Tsilhqot’in leadership in B.C.’s Interior say they have no choice but to close all salmon fishing within their territory west of Williams Lake due to the “extreme conservation concern” over the state of sockeye and chinook runs.
They are asking all members from their six communities, who rely on salmon as a main food source, to abide by the closure.
“It is a very difficult decision,” leaders noted in a statement to members Friday, Aug. 14. “We know the incredible hardship this means for our families and communities — not only the loss of food for our freezers this winter but also foregoing our rights to practice our culture and teach our young ones what it means to be Tsilhqot’in — the River People.”
Chief Roy Stump of the ?Esdilagh First Nation, which is situated between Williams Lake and Quesnel on the Fraser River, said the closure is urgently needed.
“We need to protect the salmon for future generations,” Chief Stump said.
Tsilhqot’in National Government fisheries manager Randy Billyboy said the number of sockeye salmon making a return to their rivers including the Chilcotin, Chilko, and Taseko and tributaries has been downgraded to 52,000.
A sonar population assessment on Aug. 12 at the Farwell Bridge on the Chilcotin River counted just 16 sockeye.
In terms of Chinook, fewer than 10 were spotted in the spawning grounds of the upper Chilcotin River by a flight conducted on Aug. 17.
“It is alarming,” Billyboy said, adding the upper Chilcotin River normally averages anywhere from 75 to 300 Chinook with between 1,500 to 3,000 in the lower Chilcotin River.
First Nations fishing rights are protected by the Constitution and the council says the federal government has failed in its duty to ensure they have priority access to salmon.
Robert Phillips with the First Nations Summit says Indigenous leaders have been calling on Ottawa to save the salmon for decades and it’s time for full jurisdiction over salmon stocks to be transferred back to First Nations.
Five Nuu-Chah-Nulth First Nations on Vancouver Island have also accused federal fisheries officials of systemic racism after the government decided to exclude them in the allocation of 15,000 extra salmon this year — a surplus that arose because fewer people were fishing recreationally during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Salmon returning to the Fraser River also face the added hurdle of making it over a massive landslide along a remote stretch of the river north of Lillooet.
A pneumatic pump and tube system and the construction of a fish ladder have been installed to help salmon over the five-metre waterfall created by the slide.
In an update last week, Fisheries and Oceans said water levels have dropped sufficiently in recent days to allow fish to pass over the slide on their own steam.
In their statement to members, TNG leadership said they are hoping others will follow their lead upriver, downriver and in the ocean to protect salmon runs.
“If one person or group thinks they deserve more than the other then we are destined to lose everything.”
A Department of Fisheries document from 2017 says total adult returns of Fraser River sockeye are highly variable ranging from 2 to 28 million, with an average of 9.6 million, between 1980 and 2014.
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