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Lake Babine sockeye fishery at risk of unprecedented closure

Gary Stewart/The Associated Press

Aboriginal people in British Columbia who rely on Skeena River sockeye are facing some extremely difficult decisions as sockeye salmon returns plunge to historic lows.

Lake Babine Chief Wilf Adam was on his way to Smithers, B.C., on Monday for a discussion about whether to entirely shut down the food fishery on Lake Babine, something he said would be drastic and unprecedented – but may ultimately be necessary.

The recreational and non-aboriginal fisheries on the lake and Babine River have been shut entirely since the Department of Fisheries and Oceans issued a directive last week, though aboriginal people have still been able to fish in a limited way for food.

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But that could change.

"If the numbers are the way they are, we've got to close everything down," Adam said. "That's not an easy decision to make. Salmon is our livelihood. That is the soul of our being. To deny that from our citizens is not a happy event."

Last month, the department noted returns for the Skeena River sockeye run were dire.

Mel Kotyk, North Coast area director for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said the department's monitoring activities were finding one of the lowest runs in 50 years.

Only 453,000 sockeye are expected to swim along the Skeena this year, Kotyk said, compared to approximately 2.4 million last year, forcing all commercial and recreational Skeena sockeye fisheries to be closed.

Conservation groups have sounded the alarm, saying Alaskan commercial fishermen are contributing to the problem as Skeena River sockeye get caught in the nets of Americans fishing for pink and chum sockeye.

Kotyk said department scientists don't know why the return numbers are so low.

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"We don't have anything definitive at this point," Kotyk said in an interview Monday.

"Most of the Skeena fish come from the Babine system. And when they went out to sea they seemed to be very strong and healthy and in good numbers, so we think something happened in the ocean."

He said all parties involved in the fishery are being consulted.

"Everyone has been very co-operative," he said.

He noted that at this point, there are no concerns about next year's returns based on the current predictions.

But the Headwaters Initiative, an aboriginal non-government organization in northern British Columbia, slammed the department for not ensuring the recreational fishery was closed on Lake Babine earlier.

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Adam agreed, saying the directive for the lake last week came about three weeks late. Now, he said, the department needs to step up enforcement to ensure all fishing on the lake aside from the aboriginal food fishery ceases.

"Because of mismanagement by DFO on our fisheries, it's forcing me to tell the elders and the single mothers that there is no salmon for them," said Adam.

"It is forcing me to limit what we can do on our lake in regards to the salmon food fish. I have to balance with the conservation measures that are in place now. We've never seen anything like this in all these years I've done this. I've asked the elders and they have never seen anything like this at all."

Adam said other species of salmon seem not to be having the same problems as the sockeye.

He said pinks are in the lake in good numbers, as are jack salmon. Jack are two-year-old sockeye that have returned to the spawning channels two years early.

Adam said they can be cooked, but they can't be dried or smoked, which is how his people have traditionally eaten them.

And they don't spawn.

"What those jacks do in the spawning channels and spawning beds is destroy things. I call them teenaged salmon. They're just there to destroy everything."

The one bright spot, he said, is that usually when jack salmon show up, the return for sockeye the following year is good.

"So I have to look at this positively," he said.

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