The strength of the Lake Babine Nation (LBN) sockeye harvest over the 2011 and 2012 seasons is changing the nature of the commercial salmon fishery in Northern B.C., according to Greg Taylor, an active B.C. fisheries consultant. While the supply of sockeye salmon has historically been dominated by the summer harvest of coastal fish, the band has developed an inland fishery that effectively and profitably extends the sockeye harvest past the end of July and into the middle of September.
This puts the North coast sockeye fishery in the unique position of being the only fishery in North America to bring sockeye to market from the middle of June to the middle of September.
For thousands of years LBN had harvested salmon from its own waters and had a thriving fishery until it was ordered closed by the government in 1906.
They used a traditional selective method of catching fish that was sustainable, but this method of selective harvesting was not carried over into the coastal fisheries that came to dominate the industry.
The coastal harvest is a ‘mixed harvest’ that does not select for the sustainability of smaller salmon runs like coho or steelhead.
In 2007, the Government of Canada announced the Pacific Integrated Commercial Fisheries Initiative (PICFI) in order to address the issues of an economically and environmentally sustainable commercial fisheries where conservation and the interests of First Nations are fundamental. LBN received funding through PICFI to help rehabilitate their own historically thriving fishery.
Greg Taylor is a fisheries consultant with over 30 years of industry experience. He sits on the board of directors for Lake Babine Nations Fisheries Ltd., the independent company set up by the LBN to manage its fishery.
“The LBN did not have a consistent fishery,” says Taylor, “but through PICFI they were able to use $600,000 to upgrade their facilities and through strategic partnerships with North Delta Seafoods and other partners they have taken the fishery to the next step.” Sockeye salmon harvested by the LBN is marketed and sold throughout North America and internationally through large retailers like Costco in fresh and frozen portions. Lake Babine Nation is involved in a very important sea change in thinking concerning fishery management. “That’s what makes this interesting,” says Taylor. “The coast has been a mixed fishery for over 100 years and over-fishing has required that the coast fishery be clamped down. In doing so, a surplus has been created going up river. It’s always been a trade of between yield for economic value. We’ve changed that scenario, that scenario no longer exists. You now don’t have a trade off between economic value and conservation. It’s a very innovative step in salmon management in British Columbia to think outside the box that you need to harvest this fish in a marine environment.”
The band traditionally harvested salmon through a series of fishing ‘weirs’ that trapped salmon as they moved upstream. These weirs were wood constructs in the river that allowed for the selective harvesting of strong stock while weaker stock were free to continue their run. Harvest techniques have changed to boat and beach ‘seines’ rather than permanent weirs, but they still allow for selective harvesting. “This fishery is a very selective fishery and it takes place at the terminus where these fish are going to end up,” according to Taylor. “Other species of concern are split off to their own tributary streams. All that is left is an identifiable surplus.” This surplus is then harvested according to need and market demand. All the other LBN fisheries (babine fence and mid-river fishery) are selective for species in the same way.
The return of the LBN selective fishery is a return to the sustainability principles that guided salmon harvesting over 100 years ago. Taylor summarizes his work with the LBN as “the best experience of my career, to be involved in something that had been taken away at the turn of the century.”