Alleged white sturgeon poaching from Fraser River angers conservationists, anglers

The B.C. Conservation Officer Service is investigating the alleged poaching, which was reported Friday Aug. 31. The conservation service says there is a black market for white sturgeon meat and caviar.

The B.C. Conservation Officer Service says there is black market for meat, caviar

A white sturgeon at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Sturgeon Center at Bonneville Dam in January 2010. (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife/Flickr)

The B.C. Conservation Officer Service (COS) says it is investigating the alleged llegal removal of a huge endangered fish from the Fraser River near Chilliwack.

Those who fish for white sturgeon — a catch and release fishery only — are shocked by what they describe as a brazen case of poaching.

Video appears to show giant fish being dragged along shore at Bowman's Point near Chilliwack B.C. 0:20

On Aug. 31, the conservation service received calls to its poaching and polluters hotline line with a report that someone was illegally fishing a large white sturgeon at an area called Bowman's Point.

The COS says witnesses reported to them that a man and his son had hooked a huge sturgeon and were struggling to reel it in when two other men in a boat approached, roped the fish, dragged it to shore and drove off with it.

"I mean it's pretty upsetting to see something like that and people actually get away with it all the time right," said Aaron Leckie a sport fisherman who lives in Mission.

Black market for meat, caviar

The white sturgeon, the longest living freshwater fish in North America, can reach 100 years of age and grow to more than six metres in length. 

Acting Sgt. Don Stahl with the Conservation Officer Service says there is a black market for sturgeon meat and eggs, or caviar, which can be worth thousands of dollars per fish.

Aaron Leckie, a sport fisherman from Mission B.C., shows off a white sturgeon he caught in the Fraser River in August 2018. He wants more enforcement of poachers of the endangered fish. (Aaron Leckie/Facebook)

"A thrill of a lifetime," is how Leckie describes hooking a white sturgeon.

In 1994, due to dwindling numbers from over fishing and loss of habitat, the harvest of the sturgeon was banned

In 2015, to address poaching, night fishing was banned.

Despite the protections, the numbers of the fish, especially juvenile ones, in the lower Fraser River, one of its main habitats in North America, have dwindled to an estimated 35,000 in 2017.

That's down nearly 40 per cent from 2003 according to the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society.

'Huge hit to our economy'

Dean Werk, who owns and runs Great River Fishing, a fishing guide outfit specializing in white sturgeon, says the fish generates a million dollars in revenue each year for his company.

Werk said poachers could hurt the economy, noting each year people from around the world come to fish for sturgeon in a sustainable manner.

"This is a huge ... huge hit to our economy if we are poaching these fish," he said. One of his guides filmed the alleged poaching and reported it to the COS.

Stahl says two suspects have been identified, but the investigation could take months.

If convicted, he says sturgeon poachers could face thousands of dollars in fines, the confiscation of equipment such as trucks or boats and even jail time if convicted of commercially selling the fish.

Stahl has been a conservation officer for 21 years and deals with a handful of white sturgeon investigations each year.

Report poachers

Meanwhile Stahl and other anglers want people to pay attention to possible acts of poaching and call either the COS's poaching and polluters line or Fisheries and Oceans Canada's fisheries violation reporting line.

"The eyes and ears on the river are everybody," said Werk. "It should be expected that every single person who is using the Fraser River whether you are Indigenous or sport recreational angler that we be responsible for the future of the survival of this fish."