The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans says it has launched a formal investigation after a video showing allegedly harmful salmon release practices was posted online last week.
The video was filmed during a pink-salmon fishery just south of Kitimat, B.C., on the province's North Coast, and appears to show other species of salmon lying unsorted on boat decks for as long as six minutes before being tossed or kicked off the side.
North Coast area director Mel Kotyk called the images disturbing and questioned whether fishing vessels are "acting in accordance with their license."
"Under the Fisheries Act (non-targeted fish) must be returned the ocean in the quickest and least harmful manner possible," he said.
The department has requested the raw footage from the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, the environmental advocacy group that posted the video online last week.
A spokesman for the Canadian Fishing Company, which is owned by the Jim Pattison Group, welcomed the investigation.
"We have taken strong action in terms of re-instructing our fleet in how to properly care for fish that are released into the water," said company spokesman Rob Morley. "We continue to believe that the majority of the fleet are doing a good job. We certainly don't want to see poor practices."
Morley said improving the industry is always a goal.
"We're always interested in looking at cost-effective solutions that can improve the situation, but it's a big fishery with thousands of vessels participating, and a lot of people have to be consulted to figure out what those measures may be."
Watershed Watch spokesman Aaron Hill said fishing boats targeting pink salmon in B.C.'s northern fisheries may be killing up to 167,000 chum, sockey, and other salmon through improper release practices.
Hill said the investigation may result in a few fishermen becoming scapegoats, instead of industry-wide change that he said is desperately needed.
'There are systemic problems that need to be addressed that aren't going to be addressed by disrupting a few guys... unfortunate enough to be the ones in our video.' —Watershed Watch spokesman Aaron Hill
"We've exposed a behaviour in the fishing fleet that is quite commonplace," he said. "There are a few boats out there that are doing things right, but we went out onto the fishing grounds and we (taped) the first three boats we came across, and they all were mishandling fish, and one boat in particular was egregiously mishandling the fish and leaving them on the deck for dead."
Hill also dismissed concerns the video was selectively edited and questioned whether the practices caught on film are those of "a few bad actors."
"There are systemic problems that need to be addressed that aren't going to be addressed by disrupting a few guys who've already had their lives tremendously disrupted by being unfortunate enough to be the ones in our video," Hill said.
Kotyk said he does't know how long the investigation will take but it will look at the handling practices of the vessels in the video, as well as the industry.
He said the department will also consider evidence other than the video to determining what action, if any, should be taken.
Fisheries officers can issue warnings and tickets to offenders, he added, and the department can also take people to court where a judge decides on the penalty.