In a stunning turnaround, sockeye salmon have returned to Osoyoos Lake in the B.C. Interior at levels not seen in more than 60 years.
But instead of setting off celebrations, their arrival has ignited a battle for control of the fishery between local first nations and the federal government.
At 250,000, this summer's sockeye run is the largest since the 1930s, when U.S. dam construction on the Columbia River decimated fish stocks. Salmon in Osoyoos Lake, which straddles the U.S.-Canadian border, reached a low of about 10,000 a year in the late 1990s.
After years of depressed runs, the dispute in the Interior is taking place during a summer when sockeye salmon numbers are surprisingly buoyant all over the province, increasing pressure on the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to allow more fishing and exacerbating tensions with native groups.
The high numbers in Osoyoos Lake this year prompted the DFO to allow both a limited commercial fishery, open only to local first nations, as well as a 10-day recreational fishery, open to all anglers.
It's the first time recreational fishing for sockeye has been allowed on the lake since fishing regulations were introduced about 50 years ago, said the DFO's chief of resource management for the B.C. Interior, Les Jantz. The recreational fishery opened on Aug. 13 and closed on Aug. 22.
The decision sparked outrage at the Okanagan Nation Alliance, a group of seven first nations that has been spearheading a project to restore the salmon run for more than a decade. For the past six years, those efforts have included releasing millions of salmon fry into nearby rivers.
The provincial and federal governments are both providing scientific and financial support to the project, but the bulk of the funding comes from power utility districts in Washington State.
"We're just now beginning to see the fruits of our labour," said the ONA head, Chief Stewart Phillip. "Then overnight, DFO makes this grandiose public announcement that they're going to open up a recreational fishery without any real consultation with our elected leadership."
Mr. Phillip said it was "premature" to open up a recreational fishery and that the ONA's primary concern is ensuring the salmon run's long-term sustainability. But he also said that because of their efforts, first nations have the right to jointly manage the resource.
"They don't have exclusive jurisdiction," he said of the fisheries department.
But as far as the DFO is concerned, the federal government has "ultimate responsibility" for managing fisheries, said Mr. Jantz. He added that government policy puts recreational and commercial fishing at the same level, so if one is to be allowed so should the other.
John Cummin, Conservative MP for Delta-Richmond East and a long-time DFO critic, nonetheless supports the department's position. "The DFO," he said, "has the constitutional right and obligation to manage the fishery."
At a mid-July meeting with DFO officials, the assembled first nations chiefs made it "abundantly clear" that they oppose recreational fishing at this time, said Mr. Phillip.
But the chiefs also wanted a trial commercial fishery to see if the harvesting of salmon from Osoyoos Lake might become a viable industry for first nations.
Mr. Jantz said it became apparent at the meeting that the chiefs consider themselves "the managers of the Okanagan Nation sockeye," a position the department rejects.
"We went away, we took their views into consideration and had discussion internally and just felt that was not an appropriate way to go forward and as a result we announced the recreational fishery for 10 days in Osoyoos Lake," he said.
Both sides say they hope to negotiate an amicable solution. But it won't be easy.
While the government has a clear obligation to consult with first nations, the right of first nations to manage fish stocks is not as well established in Canada as it is in the United States, according to University of British Columbia law professor Doug Harris, who specializes in aboriginal rights.
A court case in the 1970s made Indian tribes in Washington State equal partners with the government when it comes to fisheries management.
But in Canada, "that jurisdiction is one that [the DFO]has pretty carefully guarded for itself and is reluctant to give up," he said, while our courts "haven't yet had a case come before them that has put the issue of management front and centre."
Special to The Globe and Mail