After years of meager harvests, British Columbia's beleaguered commercial salmon fishermen decided yesterday that enough was enough. They went fishing.
Defying a federal fishing ban, more than 130 fishing boats crowded into salmon-rich waters off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island to harvest part of a huge run of sockeye salmon moving toward the Fraser River.
"The fishing is phenomenal," exulted a protester by radio.
Gordie McEachen, chief of regional conservation management for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said the protest was B.C.'s largest illegal fishery in years.
Five teams of fisheries officers were busy during the four-hour protest, boarding vessels and ticketing fishermen who had their nets in the water, Mr. McEachen said.
"They will be charged with fishing during a closed time. We counted 133 vessels in the area . . . at least 17 of them appeared to be fishing."
Garth Mirau, second vice-president of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union, laughed when told of Mr. McEachen's estimate.
"That's just the number of people they've managed to charge," Mr. Mirau said. "A heck of a lot more people were fishing than that. Fishermen are angry. This is just the beginning."
The run, much larger than predicted, had been declared off-limits by fisheries authorities concerned that not enough salmon would return to their spawning grounds to ensure the run's survival.
But fishermen are furious at having to watch millions of prize sockeye swim by. They believe there are more than enough salmon to allow a commercial fishery while providing for sufficient spawning.
"It seems the more fish that come into the system, the more closures there are," Mr. Mirau said. "It doesn't make any bloody sense at all. It's crazy."
He said West Coast fishermen are fed up at what they say is years of mismanagement by regulators of once-plentiful salmon stocks.
"We haven't had any meaningful fisheries for five years. Fishermen are just like everyone else, We shouldn't have to fight for the right to go back to work," Mr. Mirau said. "We believe it's time for the Fisheries Minister [Robert Thibault]to step in and take control of his managers out here."
The fish caught were part of the legendary Adams River sockeye run, one of the richest in the world. In recent years, however, for reasons that scientists cannot explain, salmon headed up the Fraser for the Adams River System where they spawn have returned before they matured. As a result, about 90 per cent die without producing young.
If the phenomenon continues, biologists worry that over time the run could be wiped out. This year, some Adams River sockeye migrated in late July, far in advance of their normal fall spawning runs.
DFO regional manager Wayne Saito agreed that this run headed to the Fraser shows signs of normalcy, with fish waiting at the mouth of the river as if for a fall return.
But no one knows whether they will enter the river too soon, Mr. Saito said. The situation is too critical to chance renewed commercial harvesting, he said. Every sockeye is needed on the spawning grounds.
"The fishermen have a view that they know more than I know. They could be right," he acknowledged. "But based on my knowledge, the choices are few. We can't afford to take any unreasonable chances or risk."
Nonsense, Mr. Mirau said. There are 2.5 million salmon near the Fraser, and that alone is sufficient to ensure a good spawning return.
Fishermen have no interest in killing off the Adams River run, he added. "But DFO's decision is based on some really shaky scientific information. It doesn't seem to make any sense. There are still an awful lot of fish out there."