A commercial fishery on Howe Sound was shut down by the federal government last week after it was discovered there wasn't "the abundance of fish" originally expected — despite prior warnings from local anglers of low pink salmon numbers.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) announced the pink salmon fishery for Aug. 10 to 15, limiting it to two seine vessels between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. daily.
It was shut down Wednesday, Aug. 12.
"The DFO was not yet seeing the abundance of fish that were anticipated for that time, therefore it was prudent to stop fishing and allow for more fish to move into the river," wrote DFO spokesperson Michelle Imbeau in an email.
In an earlier email to Pique, another DFO spokesperson, Jonathan Thar, said the fishery was opened "based on information indicating that a strong return of pink salmon to the Squamish River could be expected this year."
Squamish anglers warned of the impact a commercial fishery could have on Howe Sound's pink salmon population, including Sea to Sky Fisheries Roundtable member Dave Brown, who said there wasn't adequate consultation with local groups or the scientific data to back the opening.
"Observations from people out on the water — the Squamish Streamkeepers (Society), angling guides — are that the return just isn't there, and we don't know if it's coming and the DFO can't provide us with any evidence that it's coming," he said.
Pink salmon play a huge role in the Squamish River ecosystem as a vital food source for other fish, bears and eagles. Their carcasses also put significant nutrients back into the ecosystem, which is particularly essential for the glacier-fed waters of the Squamish River network.
Key to the problem, noted Valley Fishing Guides owner Clint Goyette, is that the DFO under Prime Minister Stephen Harper doesn't have the resources or support to properly monitor Howe Sound's fish populations.
"I don't think they have any scientific evidence because they haven't done any (research). That's the reality of it," he said. "They haven't done any DNA (analysis) on our fish, they haven't done any monitoring to see how much escapement there is. They don't know anything about our fish; they're just throwing darts at a dartboard and hoping for a bull's eye."
According to the DFO, the fishery was intended to "support the future management of the pink salmon population," but Brown feels having commercial fishermen assess the stock is a clear conflict of interest.
"It's a huge concern that fisheries management has essentially been left to the commercial operations that want to harvest them," he said.
There's also been no information from the DFO on the effect the pink salmon fishery could have on Howe Sound's dwindling Chinook numbers, noted Brown.
Ottawa has cut the DFO's budget considerably in recent years, with government-funded scientific research particularly hard hit.
Sea to Sky MP John Weston, however, defended his government's track record, highlighting investment in protecting habitat and fisheries, among other things.
"Our government is fostering a culture where we are continuously improving. In 2012 there was a changing of the regulations to better focus on fisheries protection," said Weston, referring to the revised Fisheries Act, which removed protections for up to 80 per cent of Canada's endangered freshwater species. "So you focused on three areas: aboriginal, recreational and commercial fisheries, rather than say all fish and all fisheries are equal, those are the three being protected."
The DFO has not ruled out the possibility that another pink salmon fishery could open on Howe Sound this season after reviewing the "brief, limited fishery with industry."