Traditional salmon fishing on Capilano River raises complaints

At the mouth of the Capilano River, members of the Squamish First Nation have engaged in rock weir fishing for generations. Using rocks as barriers to trap salmon in small ponds, and simple nets to move them to land, the annual harvest helps feed the community for months.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada hopes education will help people understand Aboriginal rights

Members of the Squamish First Nation catch fish on the Capilano River (Submitted)

At the mouth of the Capilano River, members of the Squamish First Nation have engaged in rock weir fishing for generations. 

Using rocks as barriers to trap salmon in small ponds, and simple nets to move them to land, the annual harvest helps feed the community for months.

"It's a very specific art that a lot of young men learn," said Squamish Nation spokesman Chris Lewis.

"We're taught at a young age that we can only take what we need, and we need to ensure enough fish get to the spawning ground so that they come back in 3-4 years." 

But in a year where some salmon stocks are at record low numbers, and recreational salmon fishing on the Fraser River has been completely banned, traditional activities are causing modern grievances for some. 

"That's a tough one there, because they were here first. But I feel they're getting away with too much," said Darryl Laviolette, a commercial fisherman.

"They'll get a lot of openings and we won't even get one."

Right to fish enshrined in Supreme Court

With the weirs in such a visible part of an urban river, Lewis hears of complaints from time to time. 

"People get confused in terms of runs, and that they're all the same," he said, explaining that though sockeye salmon stocks are low, members of the Squamish First Nation mainly catch coho salmon.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 1990 — in a case involving the Musqueam Indian Band — that Aboriginal rights to fish for food on traditional rivers are protected. 

"This is a sanctioned fishery and it's for the Squamish Nation under their communal license," said David Loop with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 

"When they harvest this, it's for the use of their people and their membership...it's not an economic opportunity."

Loop said there's regular communication between the federal government and the Squamish Nation to make sure overfishing isn't taking place.

"We only take what we need. If we used other methods, such as gill nets and others, then we're taking more than we might need, so it's a very effective way to catch fish and also get back to the spawning grounds," said Lewis.

Bad year for sockeye salmon runs

Fisheries and Oceans Canada said because of the low sockeye salmon numbers this year, quotas have been lowered across the board.   

"It's more regulated now. There's less openings and opportunities this year for the recreational and commercial fishermen, and as well, for the First Nations fishers." . 

"When there's less fish, everyone gets less." 

Lewis knows people who see the weirs in low tide might have questions at first glance, especially this year. But he's hopeful education will help with understanding.

"I understand their frustration. They have to understand that First Nations have the first right to fish after conservation."