Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Tyrone McNeil of the Sto;lo Tribal Council checks the sockeye salmon that was cut into strips and hung on a dry rack to cure for up to ten days on the banks of the Fraser river near Hope, BC.
Tyrone McNeil of the Sto;lo Tribal Council checks the sockeye salmon that was cut into strips and hung on a dry rack to cure for up to ten days on the banks of the Fraser river near Hope, BC.

The salmon run

Stream of aboriginal tradition hits a rocky patch Add to ...

In a bend of the Fraser River, as the river's current tugs at his boat, Tyrone McNeil hauls in his net and checks for fish, repeating a ritual that's been played out on these waters for as long as he's been alive, and for hundreds of generations before.

Within minutes, he's hauled up a sockeye, a plump fish with a greenish-tinged head and skin that glistens in the sun. With practised hands, he breaks the fish's neck and drains its blood over the side of the boat, the first step in processing the fish, just one of many that will be a mainstay of his diet in months to come.

More Related to this Story

On the shore, fish caught over the previous few days are hanging on racks to dry, cleaned, sliced and hung in ways that have been handed down from mother to daughter and father to son and that vary from place to place as the fish make their arduous journey upriver.

Here, on the lower part of the Fraser, the salmon are near the beginning of their odyssey and are so packed with fat that it drips from the fresh fish as they are hung on wooden racks to dry in the oven-like winds that blow through on their way to the Fraser Canyon.

Their flesh is precisely sliced, drying in such a way that the strips can be peeled off for convenient, delicious eating.

Mr. McNeil, 47, has been fishing in this way and at this time of year since he was a boy of 7. He can clean and prepare a fish in minutes.

At some point this afternoon, he plans to record the process on video.

"I'm going to record myself gutting and hanging the fish," he tells a visitor as he provides a tour of fishing spots he's frequented for decades. "Because that might be all the kids have."

As of 6 p.m. Wednesday night, the dry-rack sockeye fishery on the Fraser River for the Sto:lo Tribal Council, made up of eight bands, was to be closed, as part of restrictions imposed by Fisheries and Oceans Canada as a result of drastically lower-than-expected salmon runs this summer.

Depending on fish survey results over the next few days, the dry-rack fishery - which has traditionally run for most of July and August - could reopen.

Mr. McNeil is not optimistic.

On a plank that makes up part of his drying rack, he's recorded the number of fish he's caught since he began fishing earlier this month. Most days, he's recorded fewer than 20 fish. On one run this afternoon, he nets a mere four fish: three sockeyes and a spring.

Including his site and a few up river, there are 15 dry-rack sites operating, which together have caught 960 fish.

A decade ago by this time, Mr. McNeil would have caught 500 fish and the cumulative haul would have been about 5,000.

The steady decline of the dry-rack fishery has changed patterns for families and communities.

Mr. McNeil says many families used to gather each July on the banks of the river, deliberately planning time away from their mainstream jobs in logging mills or offices to fish. Hardly any do that now.

The curtailment of the dry-rack fishery also highlights the complex, contentious issue of wild salmon in British Columbia, where there have been clashes and legal battles between aboriginal, sport and commercial fishing interests and where there has a long-running debate over the impact of salmon farms on wild stocks.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada predicted that higher numbers of some key Fraser River salmon stocks - there are more than a dozen different kinds of salmon on the river - would "create fishing opportunities that have not been available in the last few years."

The agency forecast that commercial and recreational fisheries, including first nations' "economic opportunity fisheries" - fish that bands are allowed to catch and sell for profit - are expected.

But early runs were drastically lower than expected and there have been no official commercial or recreational openings this summer.

There is growing concern that higher water temperatures in rivers and oceans are hurting fish stocks; water temperatures above 20 degrees can kill sockeye. Fraser River temperatures were expected to hit 21 degrees by Saturday.

That doesn't stop the unsanctioned activity. Mr. McNeil says he's seen "sporties" cruising the river for sockeye, sometimes using his nets as indicators of where the best spots might be.

And he knows where those spots are. He rowed or paddled out to them as a boy; these days, he pilots an 5.6-metre PrinceCraft and has a BlackBerry holstered on his hip.

He looks for eddies and backwaters, where the salmon rest on their way upstream.

He sets his net and comes back a few hours later to check it, thinking of the years when he couldn't leave the net in the water for longer than 15 minutes before it was packed with fish.

He can gauge the size of a hungry seal by the size of the bite marks it leaves in a fish and he listens to the fish's heart beat as its life ticks away in his hands.

He's no scientist, but he wonders how a fishery that has carried on for thousands of years might be headed for extinction, and how commercial fisheries in open waters are affecting salmon runs on the Fraser.

And he wonders if the salmon, like the cod, are doomed.

"I really wonder what the DFO [Fisheries and Oceans Canada]has learned from the East Coast. And why aren't they applying that here."

Follow on Twitter: @wendy_stueck

 

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular