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British Columbia Labour and First Nations groups call for federal disaster relief for West Coast salmon fishery

A salmon leaps out of a vessel being used to transport salmon up the Fraser River with a helicopter past a massive rock slide on the river near Big Bar, west of Clinton, B.C., on July 24, 2019.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Labour and First Nation representatives on Monday called for federal disaster relief for the West Coast salmon fishery, saying low returns are hurting communities and fishing-dependent workers from Northern B.C. to the Lower Mainland.

As well as wanting immediate relief for struggling workers, the groups called on the federal government to develop a long-term strategy to conserve wild salmon in the face of climate change, which they described as a dire and growing threat to the species.

“For the last few years, the climate has wreaked havoc on the wildlife and the fish,” said Henry Clifton, a spokesman for the Native Brotherhood of B.C., which represents fishermen and shoreworkers in the province.

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“The families who work together on these vessels are having a hard time making a living," he added.

Mr. Clifton and other speakers at a news conference described salmon runs that were much lower than expected, fishermen who were struggling to pay for boats and fuel, and First Nations communities with no fish to catch.

Some salmon runs have been in decline for decades, resulting in fishing restrictions for commercial and sport fisheries.

The Pacific Salmon Commission (PSC), set up to manage the Pacific Salmon Treaty between Canada and the United States, said in an update on Friday that the current forecast for the Fraser River sockeye run is 557,000 – lower than the record low of 858,000 in 2016 – and that a landslide at Big Bar on the Fraser River near Lillooet, B.C., continues to be “a major source of concern.”

The pre-season median forecast for Fraser River sockeye was for a run of 4.8 million fish, but that number was described as “highly uncertain” in a July 12 PSC bulletin because of factors including “anomalously warm marine rearing conditions” for much of the run.

Bob Chamberlin, a federal NDP candidate for Nanaimo-Ladysmith, said the shortage of fish was hurting communities that rely on salmon during winter months and have limited means to replace it.

“We are here today to call on the federal government for disaster relief for the communities who still rely on commercial fishing up and down this coast,” Mr. Chamberlin said.

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“The hardship that is now foisted on hard-working Canadians is a very large problem within the communities,” he added.

Federal Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson was not immediately available to comment on the groups’ request for financial aid.

On Friday, Mr. Wilkinson announced $15-million for research and management related to Pacific wild salmon, saying in a statement that wild salmon populations face “urgent threats” including warming waters caused by climate change and loss of habitat.

On Monday, speakers said that funding was not enough, given the magnitude of the problem, and that communities needed direct aid.

“We need more than just funding to help the stocks,” said Gavin McGarrigle, western regional director with the Unifor trade union.

“We urgently need funding to help the workers and the communities affected by this disaster,” he added.

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Mr. McGarrigle did not specify an amount, but referred to federal programs that had been put in place in other regions, including financial assistance for workers in parts of Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec related to unseasonable ice conditions for fishermen.

United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union president Joy Thorkelson said the numbers of fish caught this year are far below normal and that many licence-holders have not fished this season.

Salmon fisheries this summer have also been affected by the Big Bar landslide.

That slide blocked part of the Fraser River, which is a migratory route for five species of salmon, including sockeye and chinook.

This month, fish started to swim past the obstacle on their own, helped by lower water levels and rocks being moved to help the fish get through.

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