Halfway up the Skeena River, between Prince Rupert and Terrace, Wayne Clark dips his net into the frigid water hoping to pull up a few oolichan.
It’s early in the morning late February, and yet the pullout is already full with parked vehicles, children playing and adults setting up for a day on the river.
On the Skeena, only First Nations people can harvest the small, oily member of the smelt family. Prized for its grease, the oolichan is also known as the “candle fish,” when dried it can be lit just like a candle.
Clark uses a homemade dip net with netting that came from a seine boat.
“It was left over, a small piece, so I used it and I made this homemade net. The holes are just right for the oolichans so you can actually move it in the water to scoop them. You can see them swimming, trying to swim away from it… I usually get about 15 to 20 in a scoop once they start running,” he said.
Clark’s six-year-old son and nine-year-old granddaughter got their nets from Walmart. They’re just as eager to find some oolichans.
Last year, Clark went oolichan fishing five times and only kept two bags for himself. The rest he gave away to family, friends and elders.
Down the river, at the mouth of the Skeena, shrimp trawl boats may be threatening the cultural staple — reports are coming in that thousands of tonnes of oolichans are be trapped in the nets.
In early February, when the oolichans began their run up the river, with eagles, seagulls, sea lions and seals in hot pursuit of a good meal, the Metlakatla First Nation Stewardship Society heard about a bycatch issue occurring in the shrimp trawl fishery.
During the All Native Basketball Tournament, people told fisheries manager William Beynon, the aquatic resources manager for the society, that there were thousands of tonnes of oolichans being pulled in the shrimp trawl boats.
“These fish are endangered. They’re coming back a little bit. We want to make sure they don’t get depleted again,” said Penny White, senior aquatic resources biologist with the Metlakatla First Nation Stewardship Society.
As of late February, DFO had not received any formal reports on specific incidents of oolichan bycatch. Colin Masson, North Coast area director for DFO, said conservation protection officers boarded a number of trawl vessels during the recent opening.
“They observed very little oolichan bycatch,” Masson said. “They’re not saying it isn’t an issue.”
Fifty-year fishing veteran, Peter Haugan, shrimp trawled for years and he said the reports of tonnes of oolichans getting trapped in shrimp nets are unfounded.
“There is bycatch of oolichans but it’s not to the kind of number that people think. I’ve never been on a boat where they’ve even caught a five gallon pail, which would be 15-20lb. I’ve never caught that in a day of fishing,” Haugan said.
Due to the lack of official reports through DFO, White wants people to report if they’ve seen significant bycatch of oolichans, or if they know of anyone illegally selling the fish.
Her other concern is that while the Nass, Fraser and Central Coast rivers have policies to protect the oolichan, the Skeena doesn’t.
The Canadian government has listed an array of threats to endangered oolichans, including climate change, habitat degradation from industrial development, and bycatch from shrimp and groundfish trawling in the commercial fisheries.
“Oolichans emerged pretty early on as a bycatch issue in the shrimp trawl fishery, so it’s been on the radar for a while,” Masson said.
There are measures to avoid bycatch, such as area closures on the Queen Charlotte Sound and a bycatch cap that was introduced on the west coast of Vancouver Island. While there’s a seasonal closure in front of the Nass, there isn’t one in front of the Skeena.
“That’s become a subject for a lot of discussion,” Masson said, adding that shrimp trawl managers had been in discussion with Metlakatla. “There’s some potential seasonal closures that are under development.”
He said it’s quite likely there will be a season closure in place in front of the Skeena, similar to the Nass, but no guarantees.
“But this is happening now,” White said. “The department needs to be more adaptive in its strategy, they need to be able to enact changes, but they move at a glacial pace.”
LED lights to protect oolichans
Shrimp and oolichan co-inhabit at the mouth of the Skeena in an area White calls “Oolichan alley.” This is a major shrimp production area where vessels have been trawling since January.
Trawlers will drop their nets from the back of their boat and drag the net deep into the waters below for hours. When they pull the net back in, sometimes oolichans and other fish get caught as well. Although they’re supposed to be separated and placed back into the ocean, they often don’t survive.
DFO is looking into using LED lights on the side of trawl nets to detract oolichans from going toward them. It’s a method that scientists with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife have been testing for the past few years. The lights brighten a path of escape under the net.
Results from 2014 demonstrated a 90.4 per cent reduction in oolichan bycatch.
“There’s been direct discussion with the industry to test the efficiency of these lights here in the Pacific region, and regulation amendments are under development,” Masson said. But he admits, the process for making regulation changes is somewhat onerous.
The LED lights aren’t the silver bullet to help the oolichan. White said the shrimp trawl nets still break up the schools within the estuary and the oolichans are more exposed to predators.
The fish is a cultural keystone, and White wants the fisheries minister to take action now.
“I called on the minister to act now. This is more than a manager-level decision,” she said. “The minister has control, these protections for the Skeena River oolichan have to be in place.”
To report a fisheries violation visit the DFO website, or call 1-877-952-7277.
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Shannon Lough | Editor
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