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Sockeye salmon sit on a commercial fishing boat as they're unloaded at Steveston Harbour during a 32-hour fishery window in Richmond, B.C., on Aug. 26, 2010. Organized crime has infiltrated the black-market trade of salmon caught for aboriginal food and ceremonial purposes, apparently diverting it for sale on the open market, an inquiry into the Fraser River fishery has heard. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)
Sockeye salmon sit on a commercial fishing boat as they're unloaded at Steveston Harbour during a 32-hour fishery window in Richmond, B.C., on Aug. 26, 2010. Organized crime has infiltrated the black-market trade of salmon caught for aboriginal food and ceremonial purposes, apparently diverting it for sale on the open market, an inquiry into the Fraser River fishery has heard. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Cohen Commission

No one followed the B.C black-market salmon Add to ...

He called himself "king of the Fraser River native fishery." He had 20 guys working for him and could deliver big numbers of salmon.

In a conversation secretly taped by Department of Fisheries and Oceans investigators, he told two U.S. undercover agents posing as American fish buyers that in an average season he could supply 150,000 pounds of sockeye. But if the money was right, and guaranteed in advance, he could get 10 times that amount.

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And that was just sockeye. Chinook, chum and pink salmon could be delivered, too - all taken during periods when native communities were licensed to fish for food, social and ceremonial (FSC) needs.

The Cohen Commission of inquiry into the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River heard last week from DFO enforcement officers, who suggested the FSC fishery is a cover for a lucrative, large-scale black-market operation. They testified that in one investigation they found 345,000 FSC salmon stored in industrial freezers, and that they believed 97 per cent of all FSC fish are sold illegally into the market, not distributed to native people, as intended.

"Most of the first-nations people … we deal with, by far the majority of them, are good people and sometimes those people get led astray. But there is a core group of people out there that simply are in it for themselves," testified Scott Coultish, regional chief of intelligence and investigation services for DFO.

What the Cohen Commission didn't hear was any testimony about the meeting between the agents and the "king" of the Fraser River native fishery. Phil Eidsvik, a non-lawyer who is at the hearings representing the BC Fisheries Survival Coalition and the Area D Salmon Gillnet Association, tried to get the transcript entered as evidence, but it was ruled out after a lawyer for a native coalition objected to its relevance.

The transcript, leaked to Mr. Eidsvik by a source he won't identify, was made in 1989.

It is old, but one of the agents involved in that operation said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail last week that it remains relevant today, because it gives an inside look at the illegal trade in food fish.

"What kind of chinook volume are we talking about?" one of the agents asked the king, after getting a commitment on sockeye.

"Ah, I would think that around here more than about 20 tonnes," he said.

Pinks?

"I could probably get about 100,000 pounds pretty easy, " he said.

The agent said he was interested in chum salmon, too, with fresh eggs, which had high value in the Japanese market.

"No problem with that as long as the price is right," the king said.

"Do you think maybe … 300,000 pounds total on the chum?" the agent asked.

"Yeah, I think I've handled that much before," he replied.

"Any problem if the payment is only in cash?"

"No, no, that's, that's the way I like it," the king said.

In total he had just offered to supply the buyers with 590,000 pounds of native food fish.

Gail Sparrow, former chief of the Musqueam band, recently complained that many people on her reserve didn't get their allocation of fish last year, even though 800,000 sockeye were harvested in the Fraser FSC fishery, because, on her reserve at least, most the salmon were taken off reserve by fishermen who illegally sold them.

It is probable the Musqueam fish went to a big dealer, like the king of the Fraser River, who was never charged in 1989, despite the damning nature of the comments he made on tape.

Why was the king never busted?

"We went with the tapes to the Department of Justice and they wouldn't proceed because of a recent ruling by the Supreme Court, which forbid covert tapes where a police officer was present unless the suspect was aware of the tape being made," said the former DFO agent. "We also tried to go through the justice system in the USA, but they felt that it was a Canadian problem."

The Cohen Commission heard that the DFO investigation that found 345,000 FSC salmon in cold storage didn't go anywhere, because enforcement couldn't get funding to track the salmon after it left the freezer.

So we don't know where those fish went. But maybe the king does. Apparently he's still operating.

Follow on Twitter: @markhumeglobe

 

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