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A small plane flies over the swollen Fraser River in Chilliwack, B.C., on Wednesday June 20, 2012.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Three First Nations are taking the federal government to court because they say fishing restrictions on the Fraser River are causing cultural harm by making it difficult for them to harvest salmon for funeral feasts and other ceremonies.

The Katzie, Kwantlen and Seabird Island bands, which are all located on the lower Fraser River, are asking the Federal Court to quash management decisions made by the department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), which restrict aboriginal fishing for early runs of chinook salmon.

If the application is granted, it could lead to a closure of a popular sport fishery at the south end of Vancouver Island in Juan de Fuca Strait.

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"The [sport] fishery generates millions of dollars and is critical to many small businesses on the coast," said Christopher Bos, president of the South Vancouver Island Anglers Coalition.

Tumia Knott, a councillor with the Kwantlen First Nation, said the action is necessary because sport anglers are taking early-run chinook in the ocean, while aboriginal fishermen in the river are being denied opportunities to fish for those same runs because of conservation concerns.

"Over the last number of years we've seen a steady and incredible decline in opportunities for our families and community members to be able to harvest early chinook," said Ms. Knott.

She said the fishing restrictions are so tight that band members have been denied the opportunity to catch salmon for funeral feasts.

"We are just talking about one or two fish. And that's happened on several occasions, so it's gotten to the point where there is a lot of frustration and a lot of sadness in our community," she said.

Chief Susan Miller of the Katzie First Nation said early-run chinook, which return to the Fraser from April to July, are culturally important to her people.

"Thousands of years ago, that would be the first salmon coming back into our rivers after a long, cold winter, to feed the people," she said. "There are ceremonies and stories associated with that … so there is a lot of lore that goes along with that fishery."

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Jennifer Nener, director of salmon for DFO, declined comment on the legal action, but said the department is managing Fraser chinook in a conservative way because of concerns about low numbers of fish.

She said test fisheries earlier this year indicated the run was below a threshold of 45,000 fish, which signalled the need to restrict fishing opportunities.

The notice of application filed by the bands states that by allowing the sport fishery to intercept early chinook, and then restricting native fisheries because of conservation concerns, DFO "threatens the food security and cultural security of [aboriginal] communities."

The application claims that "thousands" of early chinook are taken by sport anglers at sea, while aboriginal fishermen "sit on the banks of the Fraser River restricted from fishing."

But Mr. Bos said sport fishermen have little impact on the early-run Fraser chinook, and a closure of the Juan de Fuca fishery would hurt the economy without helping the salmon.

He said sport anglers are primarily catching hatchery chinook, identified by clipped fins, which are headed for Washington State rivers, not the Fraser. Under DFO regulations, any wild Fraser chinook that are caught in the sport fishery must be released alive.

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"Yes, there is a recreational fishery taking place in the ocean on mixed stocks, and yes, there is a very small impact [on Fraser early chinook], but it is less than 3 per cent of the total exploitation," said Mr. Bos.

He also said if the Juan de Fuca sport fishery were closed, it would trigger closures in commercial fisheries on the West Coast of Vancouver Island and off Haida Gwaii, where runs of Fraser chinook are also encountered.

Jesse Zeman, a spokesman for the BC Wildlife Federation, said fishermen shouldn't be fighting over salmon, but should be working together to get the government to spend more on fish enhancement projects.

"Certainly there are issues about who gets to catch the last fish. But I think we need to change our mindset and figure out how we can make sure there's enough salmon for everyone," he said.

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