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Strong returns fuel sockeye fishery opening

Recreational fishers line Grassy Bar on the Fraser River during Saturday’s sockeye opening. JENNA HAUCK/ PROGRESS -
Recreational fishers line Grassy Bar on the Fraser River during Saturday’s sockeye opening. JENNA HAUCK/ PROGRESS
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After two years of very limited fisheries for sockeye salmon, sports anglers exploded onto the shores of the Fraser River this weekend.

Recreational and commercial fisheries were announced Friday as the early summer-run sockeye numbers were upgraded to an estimated 500,000 from 349,000 a week ago. A total 2.8 million are forecast with 1.3 million reserved for upriver spawning beds.

“All of a sudden the numbers are coming and coming and everybody’s out there,” a jubilant Fred Helmer said yesterday at Fred’s Custom Tackle shop in Chilliwack.

After the dismal returns of past years that have banned sport fishing altogether on the Fraser or limited anglers to a catch-and-release fishery, Friday’s announcement that they could catch and keep two sockeye a day was welcome news.

“The good news is there lots of fish,” Helmer said. “Everybody’s having a good time.”

Aboriginal food fisheries have also been opened, and negotiations on sales agreements are underway following commercial fishery openings in the mouth of the Fraser.

But Ernie Crey, fisheries advisor to the Sto:lo Tribal Council, said local First Nations leaders are “troubled” by the “paternalistic” aspect of the proposed sales agreement.

He said the proposal involves an allocation of 8,000 fish for sales, plus the possibility of moving more from the 300,000 allocated for food fisheries into sales.

But aboriginal fishermen would catch the total allocation anyway, he said, so what does it matter whether they are sold.

“It’s not fish taken from someone else,” he said. “They don’t suffer as a consequence.”

The proposal is “not negotiations, it’s an imposition,” he said. “It’s like they want to play Big Brother. It’s paternalistic.”

Sto:lo communities will meet later this week to discuss whether to accept the proposal.

Meanwhile, sport fishermen are hoping the catch-and-keep fishery stays open for at least the next week.

“We’re very definitely happy it’s open for now,” said Frank Kwak, president of the Fraser Valley Salmon Society.

He said Chilliwack’s economy “benefits greatly from recreational fishing opportunities” and the industry has been hit by negative news reports about low returns to the river in past years.

“There seems to be a fair amount of fish around,” he said, but nowhere near the numbers seen in more bountiful times.

Although anglers can continue to catch-and-release after the current fishery is closed, Kwak urged anglers in the interest of conservation to “catch their two fish and go home” to avoid possible injury to the fish bound for spawning beds.

“We’re down to minimum escapement levels now,” he said.

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