'What fishing season?': Local First Nations worry about state of fishing in Fraser River

With mounting pressure on local salmon stocks, fishery closures and restrictions, and a landslide blocking migration paths, 2019 hasn't been ripe for fishing opportunities — in fact, some local First Nations are calling it the worst fishing season in history. 

Les Antone, councillor and fisheries manager at Kwantlen First Nation, described the fishing season so far this year as a "disaster." 

"What fishing season?" he said ruefully. "We finally got out last week, we had a six-hour opening for our Lower Fraser First Nation."

The Kwantlen First Nation community fishes by McMillan Island, in the South Fraser near Fort Langley. Most years, they'd be in the water by April or May, but this year they waited until mid-August.

"That was our first opening for the year — it's the worst year ever for us," Antone said. 

"In those six hours [last week], our boats were just drifting." 

Fishing restrictions

Earlier this year, Fisheries and Oceans Canada implemented commercial and recreational fishing restrictions for chinook salmon in B.C.'s Fraser River, in an effort to restore and protect dwindling stocks there.

More recently, a landslide on the river near Lillooet in the southern Interior created a massive obstruction preventing migrating salmon from returning to their spawning grounds. 

Gary Stewart/Associated Press

Fisheries and Oceans introduced more fishing restrictions on the Fraser because of the Big Bar landslide, as crews work to remove debris and transport the spawning salmon around the blockage by helicopter

So far, more than 17,000  salmon have been caught and transported upstream past the obstruction.

"We're making steady progress, it's very positive in terms of where we're at," said Al Magnan, an incident commander with the federal government. 

"There's high optimism in terms of the possibility of restoring at least some kind of fish migration upstream of the slide."

Construction for a road around the landslide will start this weekend, so the fish can be transported by truck instead of helicopter to speed up the process. 

Chris Corday/CBC

Fisheries and Oceans said in an emailed statement that the total counts of fish for 2019 haven't been calculated yet, so it can't comment on whether it's the worst fishing season. But officials described it as "an extremely challenging year" for several different salmon stocks. 

Scott Hinch, a professor at University of British Columbia's Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences, said environmental problems this summer — like the landslide — will be felt years down the line. 

"In terms of this particular cohort, [the landslide] has an effect on whether they are spawning and babies are being produced," Hinch said. 

"In terms of what is going to happen next year … a lot depends on how fisheries management agencies are able to configure that section of the river this fall and early winter." 

For Antone, he says the future of fishing for the Kwantlen First Nation seems up in the air.  

"It's caused a lot of stress in our communities," Antone said. 

"We don't know what's going to happen."