First Nations leaders in British Columbia are calling for an emergency order from the federal government to close the sockeye salmon fishery on the Fraser River and declare it exhausted.
“Without a doubt, it’s collapsed,” said Robert Phillips, an executive with the First Nations Summit and First Nations Leadership Council of B.C., in an interview with Global News on Wednesday.
In an Aug. 14 report, the Pacific Salmon Commission projected a record low return this year, with just 283,000 salmon expected to make it to spawning grounds.
It’s a less than a third of a projection in July, when as many as 940,000 sockeye were expected to return.
Phillips called the latest forecast “devastating,” pointing the finger at warming waters, the Big Bar rockslide in the Interior, and habitat and environmental destruction from events like the Mount Polley Mine tailings spill near Quesnel in 2014.
“Historically we’re talking about millions and millions of sockeye salmon that went up the Fraser River, year after year,” said Phillips.
“Within recorded history, we’re talking about (previous returns of) four million to 90 million” sockeye.
Federal officials and local First Nations have been working feverishly to try to clear the Big Bar slide since it was discovered north of Lillooet last summer.
Even so, high water levels earlier this summer prevented most fish from passing the site.
The First Nations Leadership Council is also calling on federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan to declare the Fraser River fishery collapsed.
In a statement on Wednesday, a spokesperson for Fisheries and Oceans said all sockeye fisheries on the Fraser are closed, and that anyone who catches the fish are required to make “all efforts” to release them unharmed.
First Nations are also calling on the province to transfer management of the fishery to Indigenous groups, which is part of their constitutional rights and title.
“It’s not only about our people, it’s about all British Columbians and Canadians,” he said.
“If we can’t even have a fishery where we can feed our own people, where is it going?
Sockeye runs in B.C. have set record lows in three of the last five years, according to the Pacific Salmon Commission.