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mark hume

Rick Church has a perspective on the salmon fishery that most people don't have. The owner of Langley Aero Structures Ltd. fixes broken aircraft for a living and for fun likes to fly the Fraser River, where he lands on gravel bars to fish for salmon.

Those bars, so hard packed you can drive a heavy truck on them, emerge at low water and are popular places for both sport and commercial fishermen to gather.

"I just got back from a trip up north today, and having too little time to get any work done, and a fine sunny day, I took the opportunity to fly up the Fraser Valley and do a few gravel bar landings," he wrote in an e-mail. "What I saw horrified me! All along the river in the Chilliwack area were large-scale shoreline net-fishing operations, many with piles of dead fish rotting in the sun on the beaches, hundreds of dead fish drifting in the shallows, in some cases hundreds of yards downstream from the netting location. Since these are shoreline netting operations, I must assume they were native fisheries, since it is an illegal method for all others."

He was right about who was manning the nets, as an aboriginal fishery was then just wrapping up, having caught 500,000 pink salmon over three days.

The native fishermen were beach seining – using a method that has become increasingly popular in the Fraser because it allows for the live release of non-target species. In beach seining, a net is circled out from shore, creating a pen in which salmon are trapped alive.

With more than 17 million pink salmon returning to the Fraser this fall, the beach seine opening for native fishermen was both a sensible and a sustainable fishery.

But Mr. Church has raised questions about waste and a lack of oversight by the Department of Fisheries.

"There were large plastic totes of fish, some dumped over with contents spilling out onto the beach," he writes. "Normally, I support native food fisheries … but this kind of waste leaves a bad taste of rotting fish in my mouth."

Photos by Mr. Church show a pile of several hundred dead fish on a gravel bar, a clump of about 100 others in the water underneath a boat and other carcasses drifting downstream.

Diana Trager, DFO area director for the Lower Fraser, defends the fishery as well run, and says it is hard to tell from the pictures just what is happening.

She said there were 41 native beach seine crews on the Fraser for the fishery and each gravel bar (some of which had multiple fishing crews on them) had a monitor keeping track of the catch. Those monitors didn't report any problems.

The dead fish in the water may have died naturally, she said, perhaps victims of a syndrome known as pre-spawn mortality. And the fish on shore were probably just being stored temporarily.

She noted that all landed fish are counted against the total allowable catch, so it is in the economic best interest of fishermen not to waste salmon.

"By far, the vast majority of those fish are put in totes and delivered to packers," she said.

Ken Malloway, chair of the Lower Fraser Fisheries Alliance, which represents 29 bands on the river, said there were so many pinks around last week, fishermen struggled to process the catch.

"We were so overwhelmed with fish, we had a tough time keeping up," said Chief Malloway, to explain why fish might have been piled on the bar.

He says the boat in the picture is a buyer, and notes the fishing nets are stored, which means the fishery has ended. The way he sees it, the photos don't show fish left to rot, but buyers waiting to load the last remaining catch.

The salmon under the boat may have been accidentally spilled during loading, he said, adding they should have been recovered.

While there is disagreement over what Mr. Church's pictures illustrate, it is obvious that piling dead fish on shore, instead of storing them on ice in totes, and failing to pick up fish that have been spilled overboard, are not good practices.

Native fishermen on the Fraser have shown a desire to develop sustainable fisheries, and beach seining is clearly the way of the future. But the fishery has to be held to account. And it is hard to have confidence that is happening, especially since the thing Mr. Church didn't see on his overflight, were any DFO fishery patrols.

Budget cuts at DFO mean there are fewer enforcement officers on the job. That leaves Mr. Church, and others who have seen his pictures, wondering just what is happening out there on the Fraser's gravel bars.