When federal investigators in British Columbia found 345,000 sockeye stored in 110 industrial freezers, they thought they were onto a major black market operation for salmon caught in aboriginal food fisheries.
But Project Ice Storm, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans intelligence operation that found the salmon in 2005, ran out of funding and wasn't able to track the fish from the cold storage plants to their final destination, the Cohen Commission heard on Tuesday.
It has long been suspected in B.C. that the aboriginal fishery is a cover for operations, with possible organized crime links, that trade in salmon the way others trade in drugs. Native leaders have rejected such allegations, saying their communities need all the fish they catch because salmon are a cultural staple in everything from births to funeral feasts.
DFO documents filed with the commission, which is investigating the collapse of sockeye salmon populations in the Fraser River, show enforcement officials felt the fish, caught under "food, social and ceremonial" licences, were destined to go into the commercial market.
"The FSC First Nations fishery on the Lower Fraser River is largely out of control and should be considered in all contexts, a commercial fishery," states a DFO intelligence assessment of Project Ice Storm.
"The Department of Fisheries and Oceans are unable to effectively control the illegal sales of FSC salmon," it states. "A major change is needed in fisheries laws to effectively deal with the commercial processing and storage of FSC fish."
Another document, recording a meeting of DFO enforcement officers in April, 2010, states that "97 per cent of FSC harvest in LFR [Lower Fraser River]is thought to be sold."
Scott Coultish, regional chief of DFO's Intelligence and Investigation Services, said in testimony the estimate was based on the personal comments of field officers, not from any research. But he felt it was accurate.
Each year, bands are allocated a catch of salmon to cover their food, social and ceremonial needs. Some years, when there is a surplus of fish, they are also allowed "economic opportunity" catches, which can be sold. In 2005, only 5,500 sockeye were caught in the native EO fishery on the Fraser.
Mr. Coultish said the 345,000 sockeye in cold storage plants in the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island were registered to individuals and companies. The fish, which were legally stored, were flash frozen, or smoked and in vacuum packaging.
"Most or all of this was consistent with what you would see for commercial fish," he said. "This product was simply not for food, societal and ceremonial use."
Randy Nelson, DFO's director of conservation and protection on the Pacific coast, told the commission his department didn't have the resources to follow up on the find, and he doubted they would in the future because he has been told significant cutbacks are coming.
In an interview outside the hearings, Ernie Crey, a fisheries adviser for the Sto:lo Nation, which fishes on the Lower Fraser, rejected the implications of the testimony of the two DFO officials.
He said 950,000 FSC sockeye were caught by native communities in the Fraser in 2005, and because the season was short and intense, a large number of fish arrived quickly and went into commercial freezers.
"About one third of our fish were in cold storage. This would not be unusual," he said.
Mr. Crey said salmon are served at almost every ceremony.
"If a member of my community passes away, you'd get 250 to 1,000 people attending the funeral. Fish would be served. It's the same at weddings, birthdays. … And that's a lot of fish," he said.
About 40,000 aboriginal people live in Metro Vancouver and about 15,000 are in the Fraser Valley. It's not clear how many of them get FSC salmon.