VANCOUVER -- As many as 17 million sockeye salmon are expected to reach the mouth of the Fraser River this summer in one of the highest returns in the past 15 years.
The catch-up year could mean more than $240-million for British Columbia's struggling commercial salmon fishery.
"That's an exceptional fishing run," Bob McKamey, spokesperson for the Fraser River Gillnetters Association, said yesterday in an interview, referring to the projected return of 17 million salmon. The association represents 375 fishermen.
The commercial salmon fishery so far has been allotted a catch of eight million Fraser River salmon, a federal government official said.
Last year, boats remained tied up at the docks after Ottawa closed the commercial fishery for conservation purposes.
"This could be a real important year for us," Mr. McKamey said.
He said fishermen have been waiting for a good year to revive the flagging industry. Despite the poor harvests in recent years, many fishermen have not sold their boats because the value of the fishing licenses has dropped.
"Certainly we view this as a turnaround year. We're cautiously optimistic," he said.
However, significantly smaller runs are expected next year and the year after.
The salmon return to the waters where they were hatched after four years in the ocean. This means that each year, different schools of fish return to spawn in the Fraser River. "The next couple of years are expected to be pretty poor," Mr. McKamey said.
Despite the prospect of plenty this year, the "dock talk" is once again about organizing a protest fishery later this summer. Commercial fishermen are upset with a court ruling last month that upheld first-nations' fishing rights and with the new federal Conservative government, which has failed to move on significant changes as quickly as the fishermen expected.
"The way they run [the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans], we're very apprehensive," Mr. McKamey said. "It's not the number of fish that determine whether we're allowed to fish."
Mr. McKamey has been charged three times in recent years for allegedly fishing illegally in protest against the first-nations fisheries. The charges are winding through the courts, but he said he still would not hesitate to participate in another protest fishery this summer.
"I would be out there because [a separate native fishery] is fundamentally wrong," he said, adding that he hopes a protest will not be necessary.
The commercial salmon fishery on the Fraser River has been embroiled in conflict since the early 1990s. In recent years, tension has mounted as the federal government closed the salmon fishery for commercial fishermen but allowed natives to fish for personal consumption, social and ceremonial needs. Commercial fishermen have charged that some native fishermen were sidestepping the rules and selling their fish commercially.
The contentious issue of first-nations fisheries could loom much larger this summer, after a B.C. Court of Appeal ruling last month upheld a federal government policy restricting commercial salmon fishing to native people during specific periods. A five-judge panel unanimously decided the policy was a legitimate "political choice" that did not breach equality rights of non-native fishermen.
Commercial fishermen have been notified that the fishery will open for six hours on Aug. 2 and is expected to have additional openings later in August. First-nations fishermen are already fishing early runs on the Fraser River.
The federal government had anticipated a quieter season this year.
"We have been very optimistic this year," Steve Outhouse, a spokesman for federal Fisheries Minister Loyola Hearn, said in an interview. The Sto:lo First Nation and the Commercial Salmon Advisory Board have been working together to come up with an agreement. "The vast majority are willing to work together," Mr. Outhouse said.
Grand Chief Doug Kelly, the tribal chief responsible for intergovernmental relations for the Sto:lo Tribal Council, said no one has been happy with federal management of the salmon fisheries over the past decade. However he was encouraged this summer by an understanding reached on the harvest of Cultus Lake salmon with the advisory board.
He had hoped that anger with the aboriginal fishery would have dissipated. He said he was disappointed to hear that some commercial fishermen were talking about a protest fishery. "They do not know how to take no for an answer," Mr. Kelly said. The courts have upheld the federal aboriginal fishery strategy, he added. "They made it clear it is not racist, it is not a race-based fishery. But that does not stop those who want to insist it is racist. So what are you going to do?"
Phil Eidsvik, spokesman for the B.C. Fisheries Survival Coalition, commended the federal government for a new program to reduce predators near salmon spawning grounds at Cultus Lake near Chilliwack. The program should mean more salmon for the fishermen, he said.
However, Mr. Eidsvik remained concerned about the Tory government's failure to do anything about the first-nations fishery. "The court ruled that the fishery is not discriminatory, but every fisherman who is not fishing today knows he is not fishing because he has the wrong blood in him. That is discrimination, no matter how it is [written] in the law."
It is too early to say what will happen this summer, he also said. But a large group of fishermen are already talking about a protest fishery. "The fishermen say they do not care [about the court ruling]. It's wrong," Mr. Eidsvik said.