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Bountiful sockeye mean roadside sales Add to ...

For more than a decade, some British Columbia Indian bands have been allowed to sell specific amounts of salmon - in addition to what they catch for food and ceremonial purposes - under agreements negotiated with the federal Fisheries and Oceans Department.

In many years, that for-profit catch didn't amount to much, as bands that have for centuries cast their nets into the Fraser River encountered the same meagre runs that sent the commercial salmon fishery into the doldrums.

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This year, things are different. On a stretch of the Fraser near Mission on Sunday, Murray Ned and his sons were hauling in drift nets, hand over hand, plucking glistening sockeye by the dozen.

"It's one of the better years I've ever seen," said Mr. Ned, a Sumas Band councillor whose family has fished in this area for generations. "Last year, we didn't get out on the river at all."

The catch is strong enough that Mr. Ned's family has obtained a vending licence to sell whole, fresh sockeye at a popular highway produce stand in nearby Chilliwack. Sto:lo Tribal Council members are using both drift and set nets to catch fish on a stretch of the river between the Port Mann bridge and Mission.

Prices paid by corporate buyers, however, are not as healthy as the fish. A packing boat that came up river on Saturday to buy sockeye from the native fishing crews was paying less than a dollar a pound.

"Yesterday, we got 80 cents a pound," said Mr. Ned's son Kelsey, as he tossed sockeye into an ice-and-water-filled tote. "The markets are flooded."

This year's unexpectedly bountiful Fraser River sockeye salmon run is putting pressure on warehouses and suppliers of staples such as ice. But Mr. Ned, who has dealt with the same ice supplier for years, said he has not run into any problems purchasing ice for his boat.

However, he knows people who have not been able to buy as much ice as they need to fill their totes. With more commercial openings scheduled this week, some observers are wondering where the fish will go.

The Pacific Salmon Commission on Friday boosted its estimate of the Fraser River sockeye run to 30 million. That would make the run the biggest since 1913.

The run comes as the federally appointed Cohen Commission is looking into the decline of Fraser River sockeye after fisheries were closed for several years in a row after early-season estimates of returning fish failed to appear.

The volume of fish that could come to market this year from bands that participate in the economic opportunity fisheries is relatively small - several hundred thousand fish are allotted under the program - but can generate much-needed income for communities, Mr. Ned said.

Aboriginal fishing regulations have on occasion been a flashpoint for conflict between native and non-native fishers, with court battles going all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. A 2008 Supreme Court ruling upheld aboriginal licencing provisions.

Native fishing rights have also resulted in conflicts on the water. Last August, a Fraser Valley band chief was shot in the face with a pellet gun during a confrontation between a native-owned boat and a sports fishing boat after gear and nets got tangled between the two craft.

That high-profile incident sparked a joint effort by sport and native fishing groups to promote better manners - and cooler tempers - on the river through measures that include an education video posted on Youtube.

On Sunday, there were no signs of conflict as both "sporties" and native fishing crews hauled salmon from the winding stretch of river - despite the pirate's flag that Mr. Ned has, in jest, placed on his boat.

Mr. Ned's focus was on catching the fish, getting it on ice and arranging some way to sell it - either through the farmer's market vending stall or to commercial buyers.

But he won't be putting any on the barbecue. After weeks of catching and cleaning it, he's fished out.

"We won't be eating fish until September."

Follow on Twitter: @wendy_stueck

 

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