Educate Alaska about low salmon returns: federal Fisheries minister

Canadians know this year’s salmon returns are dismal, but does anybody else? The Alaskan understanding of the dire situation might be lacking,…

Canadians know this year’s salmon returns are dismal, but does anybody else?

The Alaskan understanding of the dire situation might be lacking, says Conservative Fisheries and Oceans Minister Loyola Hearn.

The United States government in Alaska has signaled it’s willing to work closely with Canada to preserve the stock, he said.

But just how seriously the government takes the issue is still not clear.

“I’m not sure if the reality of how much effect their extra fishing has on people here has set in,” said Hearn.

Hearn spoke to party supporters at a Thursday morning breakfast reception at the High Country Inn.

He met with Premier Dennis Fentie to discuss mining and fishing issues.

Hearn also toured with local Fisheries and Oceans officials and met with First Nation’s leaders.

A week ago, only 34 chinook were counted in the Alsek River at a time when 500 is the norm.

The sockeye count is even worse: only three were counted when 700 to 800 is common.

These are the worst recorded returns ever, according to Fisheries and Oceans.

First Nations were asked to cut subsistence fishing in half, to 4,000 salmon from 8,000, while commercial and domestic fisheries on the Yukon River have been closed.

The miniscule returns are too new to close the fishery but a closure is not off the table, said Hearn.

“Conservation has to be agreed to by all,” he said.

“If it gets to the point where we can’t meet our numbers, then nobody catches fish. We can’t catch the same fish twice.”

Problems can be found all along the West Coast, said Hearn.

“The big question is why the fish aren’t coming back. Some people say there’s too much of an effort to catch them, poaching, etc.

“But we are seeing things happening you just can’t explain. Salmon are getting to the ocean but not coming back four or five years later.”

First Nations who depend on salmon for food are the ones who get priority over conservation.

Some First Nations have decided to adhere to Fisheries and Oceans imposed limits.

“It’s encouraging to see some First Nations publicly say, even though the returns are down, we’ll pay our part of the price,” said Hearn.

Negotiations between Canada and Alaska over the new agreement written by the Pacific Salmon Commission are ongoing, he said.

The commission, a bilateral body that deals with fish management, released a new 10-year agreement that would significantly reduce catch numbers in BC and Alaska if approved by both governments.

The cuts — 15 per cent in Southeast Alaska and 30 per cent around Vancouver Island — would send one million more fish through rivers.

“A lot of our people and groups are very optimistic about the agreement,” said Hearn.

“As the discussions take place, we’ll have a better handle on the need to tweak.

“We’re pleased, to have the agreement because it’s a difficult process, and we’ve come a long way.”