A video that shows commercial fishermen kicking salmon off a boat's deck or throwing apparently lifeless fish overboard has triggered a federal investigation into possible violations of the Fisheries Act.
Mel Kotyk, North Coast director for the department of Fisheries and Oceans, said fines could range from a $50 ticket to a court imposed penalty of more than $1-million.
"I can't speak to it other than what I saw on the video. The video isn't clear. You see the fish going through the scuppers on the boat. … I guess in order to understand how egregious it is you'd have to see, you know, is this a common practice? Is this something they are doing all day, or is this a one off?"
A fishing industry spokesman said the vast majority of commercial fishermen obey the regulations and if the few shown in the video did not, they should be punished as an example.
But Aaron Hill, who shot the Watershed Watch video on British Columbia's central coast, says he thinks the fishermen have already paid a stiff price, and he would rather the video triggered a wide debate about fishing practices than lead to fines for a few fishermen.
"Those crews are already taking a lot of heat from people in their own fleet and the public for what's shown in the video. I think they've suffered enough," said Mr. Hill.
"I'd like to see the fishing industry and the government commit to sitting down with conservationists and fishermen," he said. "We'd like to figure out practical solutions that are going to actually fix these problems in the long term and not just this band-aid solution that will hurt a few fishermen and not change anything."
Mr. Hill said conservation groups in B.C. have long been saying that too many salmon are being killed when they are taken accidentally, as so-called by-catch.
He said it is an open secret that in the rush to maximize their haul, fishermen will often fail to carefully release by-catch species, which must be let go because of conservation concerns.
In the fishery he filmed, the fleet was targeting pink salmon, but sockeye and chum that couldn't be kept were also being caught in nets.
Mr. Hill said he shot video of the first three boats he encountered and, on all of them, crew were mistreating salmon.
He said it is "outrageous" for government and industry to act as if the practice is rare.
"We knew about it because fishermen told us about it. They were disgusted by what was happening out there. And now [officials] are just trying to say it's a few bad actors who they want to throw under the bus … so they don't have to deal with the real problem," said Mr. Hill.
Rob Morley, vice-president of the Canadian Fishing Company, a subsidiary of The Jim Pattison Group, said most fishermen do a good job of releasing salmon.
"We were obviously disappointed and upset at seeing some of the actions in the video. We don't feel it is representative of the majority of the fleet," said Mr. Morley.
He said there are more than 2,000 commercial fishing vessels on the West Coast and it would be wrong to judge the entire fleet by a video of just a few boats.
But Mr. Morley said if DFO catches any fishermen violating regulations, then officials should impose penalties.
"We support vigorous enforcement of the regulations," he said.
Mr. Morley said his company makes sure its fishing boats are properly equipped to catch and to release fish when necessary and crews are told they have to abide by regulations.
"We do need to have proper enforcement action and we need to ensure that when people are caught abusing the regulations that they are prosecuted and the penalties are severe enough that people will think twice about doing it," he said.