The decline of Fraser River sockeye salmon is the subject of a judicial inquiry led by retired judge Bruce Cohen.

The decline of Fraser River sockeye salmon is the subject of a judicial inquiry led by retired judge Bruce Cohen.

Illegal trade in native-caught salmon rampant: DFO

Cohen inquiry zeroes in on black market food fish sales

Aboriginal fisheries on the lower Fraser River are “out of control” and vast amounts of salmon supposed to go strictly for food, social and ceremonial purposes are instead sold on the black market.

That’s the assessment of Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) staff tabled in evidence this week at the Cohen Commission into the decline of Fraser sockeye.

DFO investigators estimated 97 per cent of lower Fraser sockeye harvested under aboriginal food fisheries are sold, according to one document summarizing internal department concerns after an April 2010 meeting.

Scott Coultish, who heads DFO’s Intelligence and Investigation Services branch, defended the figure before the commission Tuesday, saying it reflects staff estimates.

That and other evidence filed at the inquiry gave fresh weight to long-running claims of widespread native poaching and illegal sale of salmon.

“The root cause of illegal harvest is the sale of that product,” said the 2010 document.

A 2006 operational intelligence assessment by DFO’s Special Investigations Unit warned illegal sales of First Nations-caught fish is widespread across B.C. via back door dealing to restaurants and fish shops as well as door-to-door sales.

“The FSC (food, social and ceremonial) First Nations fishery on the Lower Fraser River is largely out of control and should be considered in all contexts, a commercial fishery,” the assessment said, warning DFO is “unable to effectively control the illegal sales.”

Various methods and levels of sophistication allow First Nations-caught salmon to be laundered into regular commercial markets, it added.

The assessment called for more effort to identify and charge retail buyers in the Lower Mainland and said more resources are needed to step up enforcement.

The findings were in response to a 2005 probe by fishery officers who suspected large amounts of First Nations-caught sockeye was going into cold storage at outlets across the Lower Mainland for later illegal sale.

Project Ice Storm was an audit of 110 Lower Mainland fish plants that found 345,000 sockeye in storage as of September 2005.

That was the end of a season where low sockeye returns meant no commercial fishery was allowed, nor was any aboriginal economic opportunity fishing (a limited for-profit commercial fishery for First Nations.)

All the fish in the plants was therefore FSC fish and much of it seemed packaged for sale.

But the investigation ran out of funding, DFO officers never got proof any of the frozen salmon were sold and no prosecutions resulted, the inquiry was told.

Randy Nelson, DFO’s director of conservation and protection in the Pacific region, said further budget cuts expected will likely continue to limit the department’s ability to target illegal sales and poaching.

Although it’s impossible to say how much illegal fishing happens, Nelson told the inquiry he believes it may account for hundreds of thousands of sockeye vanishing each year, but not millions.

Many people fish illegally, he said, not just First Nations.

Even when poachers are caught many never pay their fines.

There’s more than $1 million in outstanding fines for illegal fishing in the Pacific region, according to an update tabled at the inquiry.

Sto:lo fisher advisor Ernie Crey, speaking outside the hearings, dismissed the allegation large amounts of sockeye are illegally sold by First Nations.

He said aboriginal people don’t use traditional preservation methods as much and have increasingly turned to industrial freezers.

“It’s not prohibited,” Crey said. “We can do that if we choose, along with all other Canadians.”

He said DFO wrongly assumed the fish in 2005 was destined for the black market.

“They don’t have any direct evidence that’s the case,” he said.

B.C. Conservative party leader John Cummins said he feels vindicated by the evidence presented this week.

The longtime commercial fishermen was fined $200 in Surrey court Monday for his role in a 2002 protest fishery that tried to shame DFO into cracking down on aboriginal food fish sales.

“It just underscores what we have been protesting and saying all these years,” Cummins said.

He said he doesn’t blame First Nations for the entire downturn of Fraser sockeye, but he said they are part of the problem.

“It makes the management of the fishery so much more difficult for the department when they don’t know how many are going upstream,” Cummins said.

“The resource is at risk. If we don’t do the right thing, we’re going to lose it.”

Cummins has not yet paid the latest $200 fine nor another one for $300 handed down last December for another fishing protest in 2001.

He said he hasn’t yet decided whether he will pay.

Just Posted

Ranch Musings columnist David Zirnhelt. (File photo)
RANCH MUSINGS: Milking cows and strangers on the premises

Cows in a milking barn may get upset if a stranger comes

Lake City Secondary School Grade 12 students Haroop Sandhu, from left, Amrit Binning and Cleary Manning are members of the school’s horticulture club. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
LCSS horticulture club a growing success

Aspiring gardeners at a Williams Lake secondary school are earning scholarship dollars… Continue reading

Jim Hilton pens a column on forestry each week for the Tribune.
FOREST INK: Plenty of changes happening in forest industry

A new process produces a biodegradable plastic-like product from wood waste powder

Scout Island Nature Centre in Williams Lake. (Angie Mindus file photo)
LETTER: Scout Island is a nature sanctuary not an amusement park

Scout Island absolutely does not need an ice cream stand or a food truck

Professor Nancy Sandy of Williams Lake First Nation, seen here travelling on the land in Tahltan territory, is heading up the new Indigenous Law and Justice Institute at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont. (Patricia Squires photo)
WLFN professor named director of Lakehead University’s Idigenous law, justice institute

A lawyer, Nancy Sandy is also a former chief of Williams Lake First Nation

Daily confirmed COVID-19 cases reported to B.C. public health, seven-day rolling average in white, to May 12, 2021. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C. preparing ‘Restart 2.0’ from COVID-19 as June approaches

Daily infections fall below 500 Friday, down to 387 in hospital

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A vial of AstraZeneca vaccine is seen at a mass COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Calgary, Alta., Thursday, April 22, 2021. Dr. Ben Chan remembers hearing the preliminary reports back in March of blood clots appearing in a handful of European recipients of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Science on COVID, VITT constantly changing: A look at how doctors keep up

While VITT can represent challenges as a novel disorder, blood clots themselves are not new

Poached trees that were taken recently on Vancouver Island in the Mount Prevost area near Cowichan, B.C. are shown on Sunday, May 10, 2021. Big trees, small trees, dead trees, softwoods and hardwoods have all become valuable targets of tree poachers in British Columbia as timber prices hit record levels. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jen Osborne.
Tree poaching from public forests increasing in B.C. as lumber hits record prices

Prices for B.C. softwood lumber reached $1,600 for 1,000 board feet compared with about $300 a year ago

The warm weather means time for a camping trip, or at least an excursion into nature. How much do you know about camps and camping-related facts? (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
QUIZ: Are you ready to go camping?

How many camp and camping-related questions can you answer?

On Friday, May 14 at Meadow Gardens Golf Club in Pitt Meadows, Michael Caan joined a very elite club of golfers who have shot under 60 (Instagram)
Crowds at English Bay were blasted with a large beam of light from an RCMP Air-1 helicopter on Friday, May 14. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marc Grandmaison
Police enlist RCMP helicopter to disperse thousands crowded on Vancouver beach

On Friday night, police were witness to ‘several thousand people staying well into the evening’

People shop in Chinatown in Vancouver on Friday, February 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Vancouver community leaders call for action following 717% rise in anti-Asian hate crimes

‘The alarming rise of anti-Asian hate in Canada and south of the border shows Asians have not been fully accepted in North America,’ says Carol Lee

Sinikka Gay Elliott was reported missing on Salt Spring Island on Wednesday, May 12. (Courtesty Salt Spring RCMP)
Body of UBC professor found on Salt Spring Island, no foul play suspected

Sinikka Elliott taught sociology at the university

Most Read