British Columbia

How LED lights could help prevent the decline of eulachon fish

Thousands of eulachon fish are caught in shrimp trawl nets in the Skeena River near Prince Rupert B.C. every year, according to the government of Canada.

Research shows light installation in nets could reduce shrimp trawlers' bycatch by 90%

Eulachon have long been iconic and important to Indigenous people. It was a crucial seasonal food source. (Penny White)

Thousands of eulachon fish are getting caught in shrimp trawl nets in the Skeena River every year, according to the federal government, with potentially devastating effects on the population of the fish.

It's called bycatch and occurs when fishing trawlers drop nets in the water and snare other, unwanted species as well. On the Skeena, near Prince Rupert, B.C., fishermen separate the eulachon from their shrimp catch and dump them back in the ocean.

Typically, they don't survive.

But an illuminating idea from Oregon may hold the answer. Fishermen there have been attaching LED lights to fishing lines to scare the fish away — and now the DFO is considering doing the same in B.C.

Penny White, senior aquatic resources biologist with the Metlakatla First Nation Stewardship Society, located near Prince Rupert, says the practice of dumping eulachon bycatch is legal, and is calling for that to change. 

Early eulachon runs, which take place in February and March, are mostly populated by females, according to White. She says bycatch could affect the population of the fish. 

"If [trawlers] are harvesting prior to the run, they could scoop up way too many females and then disrupt the balance," White told Daybreak North host Carolina de Ryk. 

Eulachon have long been important to Indigenous people as a crucial seasonal food source.

Fishing for eulachon near Prince Rupert, B.C. (Penny White)

Lights on

Fisheries and Oceans Canada is considering seasonal closure of the Skeena River to shrimp trawlers to avoid eulachon bycatch, according to Colin Masson, the agency's North Coast area director. 

But Masson says LED lights may also be a solution. 

The lights can be attached to the sides of a trawl net as it's pulled through the water. Eulachon are known to avoid the light as the net comes toward them. 

Fresh eulachon on the Skeena River. (Penny White)

Oregon has had great success with LED lighting.

The state's Department of Fish and Wildlife says its research showed a 90 per cent reduction of eulachon in shrimp trawl nets.

"It's very promising. At this point the department is considering implementing a regulation change to incorporate this technique," said Masson. 

Oregon's Department of Fish and Wildlife says it found placing five LED lights on the fishing line of each net was dramatically effective in keeping eulachon away.

"The nets that are used in Oregon may vary from B.C. fishing nets, which may affect their effectiveness, but you can definitely exclude the majority of eulachon from a shrimp trawl using light," said Scott Groth with the department. 

Masson says regulations are being drafted to implement LED lights in nets and the DFO is waiting for federal approval. 

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With files by Daybreak North