07/17/2013 03:52 EDT | Updated 09/16/2013 05:12 EDT

B.C. Sockeye Salmon Run Harmed By U.S. Fisheries: Conservationists

In this Oct. 4, 2011 photo, a spawning sockeye salmon makes its way up the Adams River in Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park near Chase, British Columbia. Closing arguments are beginning at the federal inquiry into the decline of wild Pacific sockeye Friday even as the commission requests new information about a deadly salmon virus. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jonathan Hayward)
VANCOUVER - A near record-low sockeye salmon run for Skeena River fisheries has cut off the catch in B.C., but conservation groups say Alaskan fishermen are not pulling in their nets, making the problem worse.

"This is probably one of the lowest (runs) we've seen in about 50 years," said Mel Kotyk, North Coast area director for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Only 453,000 sockeye are expected to swim along the Skeena this year, Kotyk said, compared to approximately 2.4 million last year. The DFO has been forced to close all commercial and recreational fisheries for the area.

Speculation over the cause of the collapse continues, but Watershed Watch conservationist Aaron Hill is worried that Alaskan fisheries are causing even greater harm.

"The Alaskan commercial fisheries are still going right across the border and hammering these fish," he said in an interview Wednesday. "We need to get as many of these fish back onto the spawning grounds as possible to ensure that this collapse isn't perpetuated in future years."

Hill and other conservationists are calling on the federal government to defend Canada's interests by asking Alaskans to move their fisheries to avoid accidentally catching sockeye.

"It's important that everybody shares the burden of conservation and it doesn't just fall on Canadian fishermen," Hill said. "This is definitely a matter of Canadian public interest in an international jurisdiction, and we're just not happy with the level of attention that it's getting from our federal government."

B.C. conservationists are targeting Alaskan pink and chum salmon fisheries who catch a significant number of sockeye as a by-product of their operations.

Hill said that if those fisheries moved closer to the rivers where pink and chum spawn, the sockeye could make it back to the Skeena.

"They just need to shift their fishing effort to a different location where they're not going to be catching so many of these fish," he said. "They could still target the abundant local stocks."

But Scott Walker, a salmon-fishery manager with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said his department has been in frequent contact with Canadian officials and has cutback the fishery in the state's southeast by about half.

"I haven't had any kind of concerned comments or any kind of request for closing our fishery prior to this news report coming out," said Walker Wednesday evening.

"Everything I've gotten from the Canadian side has been in agreement with what we've done. I haven't had anything negative, anything from them, the DFO, telling me that they felt we were not being conservative in nature."

In fact, Walker said he was surprised by the reports.

DFO spokesman Kotyk said that the government has been providing regular updates to Alaskan fishery managers for the sockeye run.

"They're very aware of the conditions, and so they would factor that into any of (their) decisions," he said. "From my understanding they have taken steps, but I cannot elaborate."

Kotyk added that the Canadian and Alaskan state governments meet at the end of each year and discuss what impacts they had on each other's fish.

"That would be the discussion point as to what we could have done differently," he said.

Under the Canada-US Pacific Salmon Treaty, Alaskans are allowed to catch Skeena-bound sockeye salmon. The Skeena sockeye salmon run is the second largest in B.C. after the Fraser River, and concern over the amount of salmon caught by Alaskan fisheries has been ongoing for a number of years.

A 2008 report by the Skeena Independent Science Panel to the provincial and federal governments estimated that Alaskans catch approximately 23 per cent of all the sockeye harvested from the run.

The high percentage makes it difficult for Canadians to catch sockeye sustainably, the report said. As a result, the government "should utilize all available mechanisms to ensure that Alaskan harvests of Skeena salmon ... are reduced."

The forecast for this year's Skeena sockeye run is so low that Kotyk said the government has begun consultations with First Nations groups to see if they can reduce their food, social and ceremonial fishing.

"Low sockeye return is of great concern to First Nations people on the Skeena," the chair of the First Nations' Skeena Fisheries Commission, Stu Barnes, said in an email.

"All we can do is provide technical advice to our member Nations," said Barnes. "It's up (to) individual First Nations to take the advice and act as they see fit."

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