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Sockeye collapse draws attention to local pinks

Fish farms again under fire

As government officials try to make sense of the near collapse of the Fraser River sockeye salmon, local anglers, biologists and environmental groups are eyeing the slow return of pink salmon to Squamish's rivers with interest.

Pink salmon usually start making a freshwater return from the ocean to spawn in mid to late July every odd year, according to local angling guide and Squamish Lillooet Sportfish Advisory Committee (SLSAC) member Clint Goyette. This year, he said, he didn't see his first pink salmon until Aug. 5 and the numbers are improving slowly.

"It's terrible. It's much worse than the last cycle," said Goyette, who has spent the last 10 years as a local angling guide. "It's been the toughest salmon fishing year that I've ever experienced."

The numbers of pink salmon started to increase this week, but nowhere near the numbers needed to lift a retention ban on freshwater pink salmon initiated in 2005 after a CN train derailment spilled 40,000 litres of caustic soda into the Cheakamus River, killing thousands of fish.

Ministry of Environment biologist Steve Rochetta said it's too early in the season to give a final report on local populations, adding that the salmon also arrived late in other parts of the province like Campbell River. Still, he is not encouraged by what he has seen so far.

"By the first week of September, if we don't have pinks everywhere then that's a problem," said Rochetta.

"They're just getting started so it's hard to sound the alarm bell right now. My gut feeling is it's not as good as I hoped it would be. It's nowhere near opening [to allow retention]. If we want to have a pink run that people can keep fish in the future we're not anywhere near opening yet."

Theories for the generally low numbers of B.C. salmon have residents looking to the government for action. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans confirmed the return of 1.7 million sockeye to the Fraser River despite expectations the run would yield more than 10.6 million sockeye.

While some theories point to climate change and rising water temperatures, others pinpoint fish farms as the culprit. Biologist and activist Alexandra Morton, who visited Squamish condemning fish farms in January, sent a letter to federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea explaining that she examined the previous run of sockeye after it left Fraser River and discovered some had up to 28 sea lice as they passed the salmon farms off Campbell River.

Squamish Streamkeeper Jack Cooley supports Morton's assertions. Although Squamish isn't normally home to sockeye, Cooley said its collapse does not bode well for other types of salmon returning to Squamish. For example, chum and coho salmon numbers were recently about 20 per cent of the norm.

"The fish farms affect us just as much as the sockeye that came out of the Fraser River because our fish will make a right turn, just like the sockeye, and go more or less on the right side of the Georgia Strait Basin and hit farms on the east side of Quadra Island," he said.

SLSAC vice-chair Dave Brown wrote a letter to West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country MP John Weston stating his dismay over the federal government's failure to recognize fish farms' contribution to the loss of sockeye, which is impacting Pemberton's Birkenhead River.

"To see high ranking DFO representatives dismissing the impact of these salmon farms on the Fraser sockeye collapse is extremely concerning," states Brown.

In a follow-up interview, Weston said he has since spoken to Brown and other stakeholders in an effort to relay information to Shea.

"I'm trying to get the Minister of Fisheries to come here to talk and meet directly with stakeholders in the community so she hears firsthand the nature of the problem," said Weston.

"Given that the priority of DFO is conservation, I'm hopeful that we can come up with some solutions."

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