British Columbia·PHOTOS

DFO officers step up salmon fishing enforcement

Department of Fisheries and Oceans officers are stepping up enforcement of salmon fishing closures along the Fraser River and in the tidal area at its mouth, in an effort to preserve dwindling sockeye stocks.

The Fraser River sockeye salmon run is just 10 per cent of pre-season forecasts

All photos by Rafferty Baker

Department of Fisheries and Oceans officers are stepping up their enforcement of strict salmon fishing rules this year, as the Fraser River sockeye run has hit a dangerously low level.

DFO officials are relying on Canadian Coast Guard assets, like the 43-metre CCGS M. Charles M.B. to carry out inspection operations, as well as maintain an imposing presence on the ocean near the mouth of the Fraser River.

According to Herb Redekopp, chief of conservation and protection for the Lower Fraser area, this year's pathetic salmon run is extraordinary.

"The level of salmon that are returning to the Fraser River this year is at probably the lowest level we've seen historically. We're especially concerned about the sockeye salmon. They're coming in at about 10 per cent of pre-season forecast," said Redekopp, adding that even pink and chinook salmon runs are lower than expected.

The area chief could be seen standing on the dock in Steveston alone, before briefing media on the DFO's enforcement measures on Friday.

"Every day, fishery officers look at what is the most significant threat to the resource that we're trying to protect," said Redekopp.

He said one of the hotspots for infractions is along the Fraser between Chilliwack and Hell's Gate. There, officers seized 25 sockeye mesh gillnet last weekend alone. The nets are used specifically to entangle sockeye, and Redekopp said in all 25 instances, the fishers were from area First Nations.

Fraser sockeye is off-limits for sport and commercial fishing this year and due to the extremely low run, even Indigenous food and ceremonial fishing is restricted.

Aboard the CCGS M. Charles M.B., a team of three DFO officers and their colleagues from the Coast Guard prepare to patrol the second hot spot for violations — the ocean near the mouth of the Fraser.

Fisheries officer Nick Horscroft indicates the area on a map.

Along with the imposing CCGS M. Charles M.B., fisheries officers use high-speed rigid hull inflatable boats, launched from the M. Charles M.B., to approach the smaller sport fishing boats on the ocean.

Redekopp said an aerial surveillance plane helps out from above, and, up the Fraser Canyon, a helicopter is used to support fast jet boats. He also pointed to the use of sophisticated night vision equipment to catch anyone trying to snag a sockeye after dark.

The smaller speed boats are crewed by two DFO officers and a Coast Guard driver. As the team prepares to push off from the M. Charles M.B., fisheries officer Randy Bacigalupo removes the stern line.

"There's very high non-compliance in the recreational salmon tidal fishery," said Redekopp.

Among the violations, officers are finding people fishing with illegal gear, fishing in closed areas and not marking harvested chinook on their licence. Redekopp said 28 people were charged last weekend for fishing with barbed hooks. 

Licensed fishers are permitted to keep up to four pinks or two chinooks per day.

Redekopp said the DFO's stepped up enforcement will continue until they've reduced the level of non-compliance they're now seeing.

"It is a show of force and it is a dedicated response to a very troubling problem that we're facing right now," he said. "We have done this in the past and we will continue to do that on areas that we need a lot of enforcement effort to ensure that we reduce the level of crime."

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker