Spring Chinook Salmon. Photo courtesy Michael Humling, US Fish & Wildlife Service

Council votes to pen letter to fisheries minister asking for earlier Chinook opening date

The DFO is set to reassess Chinook fishing ban in Skeena River on July 15

Smithers Town Council is casting out a line of support for local anglers upset with restrictions on chinook salmon in the region.

On May 19 Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) announced recreational fishing for Chinook salmon would be closed in the Skeena River watershed from May 21 to midnight on July 15, when the ministry would reassess the ban.

That decision drew the attention of Coun. Lorne Benson, who noted he has been interested in fish conservation and angling since his teenage years. At council’s meeting on June 9, Benson voiced his desire to draft a letter in anticipation of gaining council’s support to send it to federal fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan.

That letter, which he presented to council on June 23, articulates the stories of a number of local stakeholders who feel their proposals regarding chinook stocks fell on deaf ears.

READ MORE: Salmon closures announced for Skeena and Nass watersheds

“The value of recreational fishing here in the Skeena and Nass River watersheds cannot be overstated,” said Benson in his letter noting the industry plays a vital role in the region.

He said the COVID-19 pandemic has brought on significant economic impacts within the region that contribute to the timeliness of this request and that travel restrictions have already substantially compromised the season in terms of the lodging and guiding industry.

“Some operations will not open and others, [as] we move to phase III of the provincial emergency order, will have a market limited only to resident anglers. As a result, their associated allocation of chinook salmon will not be fully utilized.”

Pointing to newer data that estimates a chinook return of approximately 40,000, Benson ended by asking council to approve the endorsement of the letter by deputy mayor Gladys Atrill with the ultimate goal of convincing the DFO to consider an earlier review date than July 15.

In what he clarified was cautious support for the motion, Coun. Frank Wray noted he was not normally one to support these kinds of council-backed letters.

“I understand the amount of the money that [fishing] brings in, what I’m concerned about is how we’re choosing to use our voice,” said Wray, adding he feels there are many other significant issues within the salmon fishery industry.

“We will argue over allocations until the last fish is in the river; it happened on the east coast with the cod and it just seems like there’s some eerie parallels here.”

In response to a question from Coun. Casda Thomas, Benson explained the revised figure of 40,000 chinook returning to the region, while not an exact measurement, comes from the quantification of multiple data sets in the region, namely the Skeena Tyee Test Fishery and through consultations with Indigenous-run fisheries across the Nass river system.

Benson said an early reversal could help rejuvenate a tourism market that has historically been tied to chinook salmon, adding that the inland component of the local fishery has the least impact on the interception of the species in general.

“Anticipating a stronger return and reduced pressure on this stock entering the Skeena watershed, and anticipating a transition to phase III of the provincial emergency order, an opening of the chinook fishery is an opportunity to help rebuild tourism throughout the Skeena watershed.”

In addition to Benson’s letter also attached was a note from Alex Bussmann, owner of Oscar’s Fly & Tackle, who noted he has seen participation in sport fishing diminish.

“The predominant reason is the loss of opportunity and the complexity of fishing regulations which can change at a moment’s notice,” he said. “People who once could not wait to purchase their fishing licences are now pondering if it is still worth it. The uncertainty around what fishery is going to be open and when has been extremely difficult for anglers and businesses such as small retail stores, accommodation providers and fishing lodges [in] our area.”

While supporting conservation, he questioned the extent of the ban and how it impacts recreational anglers in the region and wants DFO to find a better way to manage the fisheries.

“Please meaningfully consult with people who have local knowledge of the fisheries and their social aspects when making decisions,” Bussmann said.

“Fishing is part of who we are and a big reason for why we live here.”

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