Native leaders representing 94 bands on the Fraser River have called for the resignation of federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea, saying her department's policies have put declining stocks of chinook salmon in peril.
But a spokesman for the minister said she is confident the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is managing the stocks carefully, with conservation as a top priority.
The British Columbia bands are angry because they say commercial and sports fishermen are killing endangered chinook in the ocean, while native fishermen on the river are forgoing fishing opportunities in order to protect salmon.
The bands have asked that all sport and commercial fisheries for chinook be shut down in the ocean, but DFO has so far declined.
"The department's refusal to close the fisheries that could impact early timed Fraser chinook is unconscionable," said Chief Fred Sampson of the Nicola Tribal Association. "At this rate, our early chinook will soon be extinct, and all of us will lose a key part of our culture and our livelihood."
Mr. Sampson said Fraser tributaries in his area, which used to have thousands of spawning salmon, have had as few as 26 fish return.
"Minister Shea must be held accountable. Her refusal to answer our letters, which ask the department to take action to save these Fraser chinook stocks, is irresponsible and unacceptable in light of the very serious conservation concerns," Mr. Sampson said.
Wayne Sparrow, a spokesman for the Musqueam First Nation, said DFO offered bands the right to fish for food and ceremonial purposes in the Fraser this spring, but the tribes rejected the offer.
"DFO is offering us licences, but we won't take them because if we do, it justifies the openings they have allowed in the Gulf of Georgia and Juan de Fuca Strait," he said.
Commercial fishing for chinook salmon is currently allowed in several management areas along the West Coast of Vancouver Island - where a total allowable catch of 23,000 fish has been set for May.
Sports fishing for Chinook, with a daily catch limit of two fish per angler, is allowed in most salt water regions on the B.C. coast, except near the mouth of the Fraser River, which is closed.
No commercial or sports fishing is allowed in the Fraser, but Mr. Sparrow said it's clear the ocean fisheries are taking at least some chinook that are headed there to spawn.
Fish from many different rivers pass along the B.C. coast, including large numbers headed for the Columbia River, in Oregon. But the bands argue it's impossible for sports and commercial fishermen to avoid catching Fraser salmon.
"We know many of those fish are bound for the Fraser, and DFO is allowing them to be killed," said Mr. Sparrow of the fish off the West Coast of Vancouver Island and in the Strait of Georgia.
But John Morris, director of communications for the minister's office, said fishing openings are being allowed only in areas where Fraser chinook are unlikely to be caught.
"When it comes to managing our fisheries, conservation is the highest priority," he said. "We have focused efforts where management action will have the greatest conservation benefits [and]we continue to allow fisheries that have low or no impact on these stocks."
Mr. Morris said DFO has been in discussion with Fraser tribes, and other user groups, for several months.
"Issues with these stocks will not be resolved in one year and DFO will be working with partners on a long-term southern chinook management framework," he said.