Over two million salmon are expected to return to Babine River spawning beds this year.
For centuries, Lake Babine Nation (LBN) have relied upon salmon for food and trade, and this year is no different.
Currently LBN members are hard at work, both in Tachet and at the LBN fish weir, one kilometre below the outlet of Nilkitkwa Lake.
LBN Chief Wilf Adam said to Lakes District News that while the number of returning salmon has doubled from last year it has still been a tough road harvesting this year.
“At the start of the season it was a tough fight, the water levels were very high at the weir. The water was swift and the fish just swam right through,” he said.
The weir had to be cleared of a lot of debris, including tree branches logs and a couple of canoes which had been lodged against the steel grates and held there by the force of the water. “We had to use a power saw to remove them.”
Now, while still higher than usual, the water levels have dropped and things are running more smoothly.
Salmon has played a central role in the lives of the Lake Babine Nation people for hundreds of years.
They dried or smoked sockeye in vast quantities for self sustenance over the winter months. Sockeye was also a source of income. It was traded or sold to other First Nation groups and also to the Hudson’s Bay Company.
According to Chief Adam salmon was, and still is the foundation of Lake Babine Nation.
“Salmon is our economy. It has always been that way. It is a self sustaining resource and we know how to preserve it for future generations. We are the best conservers of the salmon species,” he said.
In 1906, the Canadian government banned LBN’s traditional fisheries and their weir was torn down.
“They were told they had to use nets and were given old rotten nets to fish with. That year, our people just about starved to death. The next year they put their weirs back up.”
A confrontation with fisheries officers followed and LBN Chief Michell was put in jail for nearly a year for resisting the officers.
“It was decided to let the women handle the situation because they did not want any blood shed. A couple of the women dunked the fisheries officers in the water … just to scare them. The officers retreated and called for 100 militia men to quell the uprising.”
“There was no uprising, just a couple of women,” said Chief Adam.
It was decided the matter should be settled and Chief Michell and Chief Williams, accompanied by a Jesuit priest travelled down the Skeena River to New Westminster and caught a train to Ottawa.
“They arrived in Ottawa in October 1906 and by November they had a treaty with the government allowing them to manage their own fisheries …. to this day the government say no treaty exists, but we know there is one.”
Now, the Lake Babine Nation has re-established its traditional fisheries in cooperation with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and regional conservation organizations.
The salmon are caught at both Michell Bay at Tachet and at the LBN fish weir and are sold to locals, visitors and provincial buyers.
To date LBN have orders to fill for 80,000 salmon, most of which are destined for Vancouver.
The fishing operating at Tachet is a finely tuned process.
Three teams of 10-12 people work on seiners [boats equipped for seine fishing]
Seine fishing involves a 400 foot fishing net that is weighted at the bottom with floats on the top. The boat circles a school of fish, trapping them in the 400 foot net.
The spring salmon vary is size from 12 to 20 pounds.
Once the fish are secured they are hauled into the boat and brought to shore to a waiting beach crew of eight people.
The beach crew load the salmon into containers and carry them up the beach to large plastic crates filled with ice. Each crate holds 200 fish.
Once filled, the crate is loaded onto a refrigerated truck by LBN bobcat driver Colin Rosso, Sr., ready for transportation. The truck does not leave the site until it is loaded with approximately 50 crates [or 10,000 salmon] before making the trek to Vancouver or Prince Rupert.
Most of the fish are destined for a canning facility. The final destination for the canned fish is California. Some fish are also sold to other fish buyers and are destined to be sold fresh.
John Bertacco, LBN councillor and supervisor of the Tachet operation said that on the first day the group caught 3,797 salmon.
The second day the group brought in 6,480 salmon. “Our goal is 80,000 fish so we just keep going until we get there.”
He said some days are more successful than others. “The first day was a little slow.”
“It is a really clean operation. We only use the containers to transport the salmon from the boat to the crates once before they are washed out. The boats are washed after each trip and gloves and hands are washed.” The deck is also washed down after each load of salmon is brought in, to prevent any cross contamination.
The beach crew also keep count of the jack salmon, trout and whitefish that come in with the sockeye salmon.
This fish goes to LBN members as part of their food fisheries program for single families, elders and those on social assistance. Approximately 2,000 fish are distributed.
“We also wanted to sell the pink salmon, but there is not that many this year. Last year there was a lot. We don’t eat the pink salmon but there is a big demand from Asian markets for the eggs from the pinks …. there is more demand for the eggs than the fish,” Chief Adam said.
Salmon is also sold by LBN to the public for $10 per fish at Tachet and at the weir.
Eighty year old Jonas West is an active part of the beach crew and said he would prefer to be working to bring the salmon in, than sitting at home. He is the oldest crew member working this year, and will be celebrating his 81 birthday in September.
Most of the crew start at 6 a.m. start and finish at about 10:30 p.m. with a three hour break scheduled in the afternoon.
The LBN weir, counting fence one kilometre below the outlet of Nilkitkwa Lake is also a hive of fishing activity.
Up to 20 seasonal workers join six permanent workers who maintain the camp and the fence year round.
LBN also monitor the recreational fishermen who converge in the river near the weir.
“We can’t really enforce the rules of two fish per day, but we do report offenders to the DFO,” Chief Adam said.
Each year sockeye and other species are counted at the fence from the first week in July to mid October.
The fisheries program allows LBN and DFO to co-manage salmonid stocks within LBN’s traditional territory.
Chief Adam said their goal is to once again control their own fisheries. “We know how to conserve it. We want to control the fisheries on our own terms, not DFO terms, like we used to for hundreds of years.”