As a teenager, Murray Ned was accustomed to fishing for salmon three days a week all year round on the Fraser River in southwestern British Columbia.
Three decades later, the longtime Sumas First Nation councillor and member of the joint U.S.-Canadian Pacific Salmon Commission said he expects salmon fisheries on the river will have opened for a total 25 days or less for the entire year.
Salmon are in crisis, he said, while Indigenous, commercial and recreational fishers await details on the federal government’s latest plan to recover plummeting stocks.
“We’re literally losing our food security, but also our cultural security and integrity and connection to the Fraser River and the salmon species that go along with it,” Ned, who’s also the executive director of the Lower Fraser Fisheries Alliance.
“The ability to transfer knowledge to youth from elders … we’re losing that every day that we’re not able to be on the river.”
Complete data on salmon that returned to their spawning streams this year is not yet available, but Fisheries and Oceans has said many stocks are declining to “historic lows” due to the impacts of climate change, habitat loss and other threats.
In the last budget, Ottawa pledged close to $650 million over five years for the Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative unveiled in June, but few details have been released about how the money would be spent on salmon recovery plans.
Ned said he sees the salmon strategy initiative as “a black hole right now.”
In a video posted online, former Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan called the initiative “the largest, most transformative investment in salmon by any government in history,” and says it would be “built from the ground up,” in partnership with all levels of government, Indigenous peoples, industry and environmental groups.
A new minister has yet to be named after Jordan lost her seat in the Sept. 20 vote that gave Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals another minority government.
Ottawa’s new strategy has four pillars: conservation, with improved habitat monitoring and ecosystem planning, enhancing hatcheries, “transforming” fisheries, and collaborating with different levels of government, including Indigenous nations.
The plan would add $100 million to the $142.85 million B.C. Salmon Restoration and Innovation Fund and create a new “restoration centre of expertise.”
The new Pacific Salmon Commercial Transition Program is also expected to provide harvesters with the option to retire their licenses at fair market value, helping to create a smaller commercial harvesting sector, Ottawa has said.
In June, the federal government announced the closure of about 60 per cent of commercial salmon fisheries for this season. It said recreational fisheries would also be restricted where commercial closures were in place to conserve stocks.
However, Greg Taylor, an independent consultant who advises the B.C.-based non-profit Watershed Watch Society, said a commercial Fraser River pink salmon fishery that had been among the closures was open for several days earlier this month.
Pinks aren’t “super abundant,” he said in an interview, but they’re not faring as poorly as the coho and steelhead that are running with them, at risk of being caught up.
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada has assessed two steelhead populations that spawn in tributaries of the Fraser as endangered and in 2018 recommended an emergency listing under the Species at Risk Act, which would trigger habitat protections, but that was declined by the federal cabinet.
A Fisheries and Oceans Canada notice posted online said the pink fishery was “designed to address stocks of concern restraints,” other species were to be released unharmed and observers were required, though Taylor said salmon fisheries tend to need better observation to ensure threatened fish aren’t disturbed.
Taylor said Fisheries and Oceans indicated there would be meaningful consultation with stakeholders in salmon harvesting ahead of further changes, so the opening of the pink fishery “undermines (his) confidence” in the rest of Ottawa’s new strategy.
Fisheries and Oceans did not respond to questions about the opening of the pink fishery and the new strategy that’s still being developed in time for publication.
Commercial harvesters should be fairly compensated for retiring their licenses, Taylor added. But he believes the full $647 million allocated to the salmon strategy should go toward conserving and restoring salmon populations, while the money Ottawa would need to buy out licenses should come from somewhere else.
“The last time we did a major buy back, it cost over $250 million in 2021 dollars. I’m not saying it’s going to be that much anymore, but you take $50 or $100 million out of the $647 (million) to start compensating commercial fishers, that weakens it.”
Ned said his top priority is to see funding allocated through true government-to- government relationships with First Nations, in accordance with B.C.’s 2019 law adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
They need to be part of decision-making over funding requirements and how projects to support salmon recovery are implemented in their territories, he said.
While many Indigenous groups have received money for projects under the B.C. salmon restoration fund, for example, so have many non-profit organizations that Ned said are still learning how to work with First Nations.
In addition to the new Pacific salmon strategy, the federal government has adopted a 2018-22 implementation plan for its Wild Salmon Policy established in 2005.
Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press