Poaching up, enforcement down for Fraser River sockeye

Written By Tom Davis

The Fraser River is BC’s salmon-producing jewel, but in recent years, some of its salmon runs and the people who depend on them, have fallen on hard times. It’s no wonder then, that First Nations, commercial and recreational fishers were looking forward to this year’s dominant sockeye cycle.  

Unfortunately, another group of harvesters were also awaiting the Fraser’s bounty, as evidence of significant salmon poaching and illegal salmon sales have surfaced in recent weeks. 

Managing B.C. salmon fisheries is complex enough if all the fishing communities follow the rules, never mind when poaching and black market sales are added to the mix.

“The lower Fraser River has a poaching problem.”

Rod Hsu

Rod Hsu is an avid Fraser River angler and conservationist. He was one of the first to raise the illegal fishing alarm, posting a photo of rotting sockeye salmon on his Fishing with Rod website.

“The lower Fraser River has a poaching problem,” Hsu said in an interview. “It needs to be investigated and deterred if we want sustainability of our fish.”

Extent of poaching unknown

Hsu said the extent of the poaching is unknown and whatever the solution, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans must be involved. 

“It’s impossible to accomplish [sustainability] until the federal government provides adequate support for our conservation and protection staff.” 

It’s no secret that illegal sales have been going on for decades.

It’s no secret that illegal sales have been going on for decades, and that it should receive the type of public attention that it warrants, regardless of who is doing the poaching and buying. The question is, will Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray and her ministry provide the resources to end the abuse of one of our most precious resources? 

Adams River salmon. [Photo Nature Trust of BC]

Randy Nelson, a retired conservation and protection director with the fisheries and oceans, called poaching a “major crime that requires investigation,” according to a recent BC Wildlife Federation press release.

Neutered enforcement

Executive director of the 43,000-member BC Wildlife Federation, Jesse Zeman, publicly criticized the department for neutering its own enforcement capacity nine years ago when it shut down the special investigations unit. 

Zeman draws a straight line between less enforcement and more poaching. 

“There are simply not enough officers on the river to have a meaningful presence, so DFO relies heavily on the public’s eyes and ears,” Zeman said, recommending people download the free BCWF Conservation app to report suspicious activity. 

“There are simply not enough [enforcement] officers on the river to have a meaningful presence.”

Jesse Zeman

Signs of illegal fishing include net-marked and gutted salmon, along with the sudden appearance of ‘salmon for sale ads’ on local and internet classified ads, such as Craigslist. 

Even unsuspecting buyers can be charged for buying illegally caught fish, warned Zeman.

Complaints of suspicious fish sales have been lodged with the department, confirmed fisheries communications advisor Lara Sloan, who cautioned these activities may be illegal. 

“The department wants to remind the public of the legal penalties and health concerns from buying from unauthorized sources,” Sloan said. 

Poachers are beneficiaries of conservation efforts.

Poaching wasn’t the only issue to emerge from this year’s Fraser River Sockeye fishery, but it might be the most important. 

Stakeholders and the public deserve to hear the rationale for restricting traditional fisheries under the auspices of the ‘precautionary principle’ while failing to decisively address poaching and illegal sales. It makes no sense to expect licensed fishermen to bear the brunt of conservation, while poachers are the principal beneficiaries of their conservation efforts.    

Citizens can report any suspected illegal fishing activities to the nearest fisheries department, email DFO.ORR-ONS.MPO@dfo-mpo.gc.ca or call 1-800-465-4336.