A grassroots group of Smithers anglers are frustrated with the federal and provincial governments’ salmon and steelhead management plans, which they see as shortsighted and ineffective.
The collection of residents come from varying perspectives including a guide, a business owner, a town councillor and resident fishermen, but what they all have in common is concern about salmon and steelhead fishing issues in the Upper Skeena watershed.
Tom Espersen moved to Smithers and stayed in the community for the fishing opportunities. He stressed that recreational fishing has significant cultural and social impacts on the community.
“Friendships and families are predicated around fishing,” he said.
The uncertainty around whether a fishery will open and lack of warning when they do open or close, make it difficult to plan ahead and have contributed to many people leaving the sport, Espersen said.
Rather than creating long-term viable solutions and plans for the survival of the Skeena stocks, fisheries management is reactionary, Missy Moure owner and guide at the Bulkley River Lodge, said.
“So reactionary usually means shutting down recreational angling and that’s about it. And that’s not going to save the salmon or the steelhead. More needs to be done. More plans need to be in place, long-term plans and solutions,” Moure said.
The group is fed-up with the governments’ reliance on closing opportunities for recreational anglers as their primary form of conservation.
“[Recreational fishermen] harvest less than one per cent of the entire [Sockeye] run, whereas the commercial fisherman are allocated 40 per cent of it,” Jessea Grice, a resident angler and advocate, said.
Instead of closing the rivers, they would like to see governments explore other strategies.
Alex Bussmann, owner of Oscar’s Fly and Tackle Shop, said sport anglers could use techniques such as catch-and-release when stocks are too low to fish.
“[The governments] only basically have an on switch and off switch, they don’t really want to look at other methods,” Bussmann said.
The group also fears that solely closing the river to sport anglers won’t be enough to revive populations of endangered fish. They cited the Thompson River steelhead as an illustration of what happens when nothing more is done.
“The steelhead stocks now on the Thompson River are verging on extinction and that’s in spite of the fact that recreational anglers have been eliminated from that fishing opportunity for quite a number of years,” Lorne Benson, councillor at the Town of Smithers and resident fisherman said.
Gill nets, which are currently used in many non-recreational operations, can catch unintended species and these “by-catch” fish can die, but there are selective fishing technologies and techniques that are available today, Grice said.
“It’s just not fair to be always harping on the folks who are using a single barbless hook and have very little if no effect, yet, leave the other stakeholders alone. So that’s what we’re trying to get across here is that [Fisheries and Oceans Canada] and the province need to look at it a bit more balanced and we need our MP and our MLA’s help to do that,” Bussmann said.
The group of residents met with Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Taylor Bachrach earlier this year to discuss their concerns and asked for his help setting up a meeting with First Nations.
“I think that meetings that bring people together to talk about shared values and some of the challenging management issues are always a good idea,” Bachrach said on July 27.
“We need to do some work to create the conditions for that to happen and I’m not sure we’re there yet,” he added.
Bachrach said he understands the significance of fishing for the region.
“Steelhead are tremendously important to our region. The steelhead angling economy contributes millions of dollars per year and employs a lot of local folks. And angling is also an important aspect of life in our region. So these are serious issues that need to be dealt with by both levels of government.”
“While I don’t claim to have the solutions I do know that one of the aspects that the federal government could do better is engaging up-river communities in the fisheries management conversation,” he said.
Bachrach questioned Joyce Murray, minister of fisheries, in the House of Commons on June 13, 2022, asking how her approach to the Skeena River steelhead this year is going to be different from the failed approach of previous years.
Part of her response was that her ministry goes out and tests and finds what the abundance of the fisheries is and makes their decisions based on that.
The group of residents believe the only way to save the Skeena fish stocks is to work together, and that includes everybody. They are trying to build a local chapter of the Public Fishery Alliance and encourage others to join.
“Ultimately what we all really want is to see as many fish returned to their natal streams as possible. Doesn’t matter what our backgrounds are. If we can all hold that in common. Let’s move forward already,” Moure said.
Kaitlyn Bailey, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Prince Rupert Northern View