Declining Fraser River sturgeon stocks lead to calls for gill net restrictions

A petition has been sent to the House of Commons to restrict the use of gill nets on the lower Fraser River. Data shows the nets are a contributing factor to sturgeon deaths.

Thousands of fish are dying each year as by-catch in the nets

A juvenile sturgeon is tagged on the Lower Fraser River so researchers can track the population's health. A B.C. biologist calls declining stocks "an ecological catastrophe." (CBC News)

B.C.'s Fraser River is home to Canada's largest white sturgeon population but stocks are dwindling, prompting calls for the federal government to do more to protect the iconic species.

Fraser River Conservation Society data shows that since 2013, the population of sturgeon up to 140 cm in size on the lower half of the Fraser has decreased by around 14,500.

Among the contributing factors is the use of gill nets set by commercial and First Nations fisheries.

"You're losing them at every single age class and eventually there's a sweet spot there where [the sturgeon] is the exact same size as whatever salmon is being targeted," says angler Kevin Estrada.

Estrada also spends time on the Fraser River tagging juvenile sturgeon to create better tracking data for the future.

He says many of the fish they catch and release are either bloody from being freshly caught up in the nets or they have scarring from previous injuries.

A sturgeon on the Lower Fraser River caught in a gill net. (Kevin Estrada)

Petition calls for gill net restrictions

NDP MP Fin Donnelly of  Port Moody-Coquitlam presented a petition to the House of Commons in early December asking the federal government to ban all nighttime gill net use and adopt policies requiring the nets to be monitored at all times.

"Just that fact of people sitting on the nets will have an increase obviously in survival of sturgeon, steelhead and other stocks of concern," says Estrada.

Local First Nations are fighting back against proposed changes and say they have been using the technique since time immemorial.

"We do catch some and we monitor our fishery very heavily. We have 75 monitors working for us monitoring our fishery day and night. We know how many fish we catch and release. Almost all of the fish we catch are released alive," says First Nation fisherman Ken Malloway.

Kevin Estrada tags a juvenile sturgeon on the Fraser River. (CBC News)

'Ecological catastrophe'

Citing 2006 data, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans says six per cent of sturgeon deaths are due to by-catch in gill nets while 2.7 per cent are because of angling catch and release practices. 

Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson says work is underway to address the threats and he will table a response to the petition when Parliament resumes later this month.

Thousands of white sturgeon live in the lower half of B.C.'s Fraser River. (Anita Bathe/CBC News)

"You're not going to ban it instantly, there's a lot of people that make their living out of it and a lot of people who get their food out of it, but trying to come up with better ways to use gill nets might work," says BCIT fisheries biologist Marvin Rosenau.

He calls the decline of sturgeon stocks on the Lower Fraser "an ecological catastrophe."