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Endangered coho to take bigger hit as fishing fleet targets huge sockeye run

A Fraser River gillnetter
A Fraser River gillnetter's crew offloads sockeye salmon during the summer of 2010.
— image credit: Black Press file photo

Conservationists say a federally approved fishing plan sacrifices too many endangered coho salmon so fishing companies can catch more of an expected massive run of Fraser River sockeye this summer.

The predicted bonanza of sockeye – 23 million with a chance it could be more than 70 million – means there's intense pressure for fishermen to capitalize on the huge run.

But if too many coho are caught in the nets along with sockeye, it could be a major setback for Interior coho runs that were nearly wiped out in the late 1990s and had been gradually rebuilding.

In past years, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has limited that unintentional bycatch to three per cent of the incoming coho run – once that many coho were caught sockeye fisheries were usually halted to protect weaker runs.

But DFO's newly released plan more than quadruples that limit to a maximum 16 per cent of the coho run that can be killed this year by Canadian fishermen, not counting any bycatch by Americans.

"It should be called an overfishing plan," said Watershed Watch Salmon Society biologist Aaron Hill, who accuses fishery managers of neglecting their duty to protect weak stocks.

"The main reason this is happening is because of heavy lobbying from the fishing interests who want to be able to catch more sockeye."

A DFO letter to stakeholders says the changes will only be in effect for the 2014 season and was informed by an internal scientific review.

But Hill contends there is no scientific consensus on the safety of the coho protection measures.

Gord Sterritt, executive director of the Upper Fraser Fisheries Conservation Alliance, which represents 23 First Nations from Williams Lake to the Fraser's headwaters, said aboriginal stakeholders were prepared to accept some increase in allowed coho bycatch in recognition that this is "a unique year" but said DFO's decision goes too far.

"Basically they are opening the season on endangered species," Sterritt said. "We've been in conservation mode trying to protect these stocks since 1998. We've seen some recovery in the last three years. But it's still iffy."

Conservationists argue more sockeye could be taken without putting coho at risk through increased use of selective in-river fisheries, which First Nations have practised for centuries.

DFO spokesperson Michelle Imbeau said the higher permitted bycatch should still allow enough coho upriver to spawn to meet conservation recovery targets, based on an estimated run size of 50,000 coho.

Hill singled out the Jim Pattison Group's Canadian Fishing Co. (Canfisco) as a main lobbyist for looser coho safeguards.

Canfisco vice-president Rob Morley said there's broad support for the plan in the commercial and recreational fishing sectors.

"In our view, the scientific analysis the department has done themselves shows the harvest at these levels are sustainable and don't cause any conservation issues," he said.

Besides coho, some weak runs of sockeye that return to Cultus Lake, Pitt Lake, Bowron Lake and Taseko Lake could also be at greater risk in a summer of heavy fishing for the abundant sockeye runs.

The sockeye now migrating back to B.C. from the north Pacific are the spawn of the massive 2010 run when 30 million unexpectedly returned.

Last year's return of four million sockeye was more typical of recent years, although the numbers have improved since just 1.6 million sockeye returned in 2009, triggering the Cohen Inquiry.

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