A few months ago I heard rumblings that there would be no sockeye for food fish for the Hupacasath. I thought it had to be just a rumour because we have never had a year that I can remember that we didn’t have sockeye for food. It has now been confirmed and is fact that only 172,000 shall return to the spawning grounds. This number is not enough to allow for a food fishery. Our aboriginal right to fish is second only to conservation and this year conservation is the issue. This is a very sad state of affairs and if I must say so, very devastating as sockeye the main food staple for the Hupacasath people and has been since time immemorial. The Hupacasath are located on the Somass River and their territory encompasses the Alberni Inlet and beyond.
Sockeye come up the river to spawn either in the Sproat Lake or Great Central Lake systems. The Somass river has always been a rich fish bearing water body and sockeye, Chinook, coho, and chum all come through those waters. Throughout the years, Hupacasath have done a lot of different projects that helped clean up the rivers/habitat for the salmon to ensure the runs would continue.
Hupacasath has also been involved in doing counts for the salmon runs, taking bio samples for the fish, and fish monitoring of the sport fishery. Unfortunately our role in management of the fishery has been minimal. Though we have often tried to give advice to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), they have never take our traditional knowledge very seriously.
Over the years we have intervened where we could and stopped people from fishing in an area we knew to be vulnerable, of course against DFO’s wishes. We have asked to take over various facilities in our territory and wanted DFO to start counting the fish runs early. Sockeye starts running in April and DFO in its wisdom does not start counting until mid-May.
When I was Chief of Hupacasath, we started a fisheries roundtable with First Nations, DFO, sport and commercial fishery that talk about the runs and make decisions about allocations. It was the first of its kind and continues to this day and in some ways relations have improved and in others, there is still a ways to go in understanding First Nations needs and knowledge.
I have not heard an explanation from DFO as to the low run of salmon, I looked at their website without finding any information. I attended our community meeting where we were told about the state of the run and they didn’t have much more information. So I am left wondering, is it climate change or is it DFO mismanagement of the fishery? We definitely know that the water temperatures have warmed which causes high morbidity in fish. You normally look at the run sizes from 4 years ago and it was a low year, 200,000 adults, and this year should have been around the same.
The Cohen Commission that was completed in October of 2012 was a comprehensive report and offered 75 recommendations that were a roadmap to restoring Pacific salmon populations and re-establishing sustainable communities and economies that depend on salmon. Many of these recommendations were not implemented and so we find ourselves in a dire situation of no sockeye Salmon on the Somass for food fish. The Trudeau government committed to implementing the recommendations but some of it has been for show and not substantial enough to make a difference. There needs to be far more attention to the implementation of these recommendations and also working with First Nations people and using their indigenous knowledge to improve the salmon fishery.
June 8th was World's Ocean Day and it was a day that people devote to paying attention to what is going on in the oceans and to take action. What is happening on the Somass River is a symptom of the larger problems facing our oceans. It always amazes me when developers want to locate LNG Facilities and other developments on oceans where salmon runs can be impacted. It shocks me when goverments approve them causing greater stress on our sea resources.
There will be a run size reforecast on June 29th. It is my hope that the runs will exceed the expectations and a small food fishery will occur. One of our top fisherman also believes that the forecast is wrong and we will be getting more fish than predicted. I hope so, as this is a crisis in our food fish. We can get other species but sockeye is our main fish and the thought of not having any for a year is unthinkable. If the run size is reforecast it will also show that the sockeye stocks are not as at risk as we think they are now.
Action is needed now to improve the management of the fishery. There has been little reported on the crisis on the Somass, although DFO does not consider it a crisis. This issue deserve attention and pressure put on government to be fully and meaningfully working with FIrst Nations to improve the state of the fisheries and to implement the Cohen recommendation in the spirit they were intended.