The popularity of salmon sport fishing on the West Coast has dropped dramatically over the past decade, except on the Fraser River, where there has been a surge of interest, largely because anglers have learned how to easily foul hook, or snag fish.
The technique is legal because the fish are hooked near the mouth.
Since the early 1990s, the number of tidal-water salmon licences sold annually in British Columbia by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has dropped from 480,000 to 290,000, a federal inquiry into the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River was told Wednesday.
But DFO's Recreational Fisheries Co-ordinator Devona Adams and Debra Sneddon, Program Co-ordinator for the Lower Fraser, said the number of fishermen angling on the Fraser for sockeye has grown during that same period.
The DFO officials did not have fishing licence sales data to show how much sockeye fishing has grown on the Fraser, because a provincial, non-tidal-waters licence is required in freshwater, not a federal salt-water licence. But they said the growth of river sockeye fishing has been dramatic and a report filed during their testimony suggests it has gone from almost zero to about 25,000 anglers in a few years.
Ms. Sneddon said sports fishing in the Fraser for sockeye began around 1996 and DFO patrol flights now typically count about 1,500 anglers along the river on a typical day during the season.
The fishermen sometimes crowd onto popular gravel bars, parking their trucks overnight, and fishing in long lines known as picket fences.
"The fishing areas are fairly small … if you get a couple hundred people on a bar, that can lead to conflict," she said of the clashes that sometimes take place between anglers.
Ms. Sneddon said recreational anglers can also come in conflict with commercial fishermen, including native fishermen, who drift along the bars with gill nets, scooping up the salmon the sports anglers are casting for.
Ms. Sneddon said the growing popularity of the sport fishery is tied to the development of a controversial "bottom bouncing" method, in which anglers swing their lures across the current, sweeping through schools of fish.
The technique is controversial within the recreational fishing community because some regard it as unsportsmanlike. The method is often referred to as "flossing" because when a line is swung through a school, it will often get caught in the mouth of a fish. When the line is pulled tight, the salmon is hooked, or snagged, on the outside of its jaw.
"It does hook generally in the mouth, but it has not bit the lure," said Ms. Sneddon. "The Department does not get involved in that ethical debate. … It is a legal fishing method when they hook it in the mouth."
Commissioner Bruce Cohen, who was appointed last year by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to investigate the decline of sockeye in the Fraser, heard the sockeye fishery has recently supported the growth of fishing lodges and professional guiding businesses on the Fraser. But the unpredictable nature of the salmon run has created difficulties because while resorts book six months in advance, fishing closings are often imposed with only a few days notice.
He was shown an e-mail to DFO from Frank Staiger, owner of the Fraser River Fishing Lodge & Resort, a luxury operation that often caters to celebrities and charges up to $2,400 for a three-day fishing package.
Mr. Staiger wrote to complain about a salmon-fishing closing DFO was then considering, in August 2007, saying: "We are SOLD OUT for salmon fishing with 22 direct jobs on the line. If the river is closing, we have to lay off most of our staff as a direct result. … The impact of a closure would be a disaster."
Asked if it was possible to provide sport anglers predictable and stable access to sockeye in the Fraser, Ms. Adams replied: "No. It's not predictable. It's very difficult and dynamic … if there is an opportunity [to fish]it's a bonus."