The Salmon Cycle: Keeping Salmon sustainable and close to home

The Salmon Cycle: Keeping Salmon sustainable and close to home

👤Amanda Follett Hosgood 🕔Mar 29, 2013

It’s unknown exactly how long the Lake Babine people have relied upon salmon. For countless generations, ocean-run sockeye made its way from the Pacific, up the Skeena River, to the Babine River and its spawning grounds at Babine Lake, sustaining the nation while also providing a resource to trade with other nations.

When Europeans began moving into the area in the early 1800s, the Lake Babine Nation’s market expanded to miners, trappers and Hudson Bay Company employees. But the opportunity was to be short-lived.

A federal fisheries officer visited the area in 1904 and saw the Lake Babine people fishing with barricades as they had done, sustainably, for generations. He ordered the barricades removed. What ensued was a time of near-starvation for the Lake Babine people. Their economy shifted from one based on the salmon fishery to one based on trapping, the fur trade and wage labour.

It would take another century to rebuild the fishery to what it is today: sustainable, profitable, and creating culturally relevant employment for local residents.

Changing perspectives

DFO’s attack on the Babine fishery resulted from a growing coastal fishery and canning industry, which lobbied against inland fishing and created a bias against what is known as the “terminal” fishery—salmon caught close to their spawning grounds.

“In the past, most of the processing companies have viewed these fish as being useless,” says Greg Knox, executive director for SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, an organization working to create sustainability in the Skeena watershed. “A big part of our work is proving these fish do have value.”

SkeenaWild works with Lake Babine Nation to arrange profitable partnerships, provide access to government grants, training, and equipment, and connect the nation with more progressive processing companies offering fair prices for inland salmon. It’s also working hard to dismantle the perception that migrating salmon are less valuable than those caught in the ocean—in part to save dwindling salmon stocks.

“We understood that to do long-lasting conservation we also needed to focus on improving the economics of the fishery. If people aren’t receiving benefits from the fish, they won’t be as inclined to conserve them,” Knox says.

When salmon get close to their spawning beds, they lose their oil and become darker in colour. Lake Babine Nation fisheries manager Donna Macintyre notes that purchasers often want the shiny, silver skin that salmon are known for, rather than the deep reds of those ready to spawn. “A lot of times people would think the fish in the river or in the lake isn’t good, and it is.” The nation’s success is a testament to the quality of inland salmon.

Lake Babine conducted the second-largest salmon harvests over the past two years, with about 275,000 sockeye or 800 tons harvested in 2012 and a similar amount the year before. With the season starting in early August and running into September, the result is longer employment for nation members and a longer season to buy fresh salmon.

The Lake Babine fishery employs over 100 people with three harvest sites: one at the Babine fence and two at spawning creeks off Babine Lake. All employ Lake Babine Nation members, with revenue spreading throughout the community.

“It just brings back the integral part of our culture and the fact we used to do this 100 years ago to sustain our people and other people,” Macintyre says. “You’re not only helping to conserve the sockeye species, you’re helping to retain culture, pride and economy of many people.”

From the river…

Greg Taylor, a fisheries consultant based on Salt Spring Island, has been working with the Lake Babine Nation. He says that out of roughly 30 genetically distinct sockeye stocks that use the Skeena River to access their spawning grounds, only one population—destined for Lake Babine—is able to support a significant commercial fishery.

That population, which represents 85 percent of Skeena River sockeye, cannot be differentiated from weaker stocks destined for other Skeena tributaries when caught on the coast. Decreasing the commercial fishery on the coast over the past few years has helped to protect smaller, less productive Skeena sockeye stocks, but has also led to large surpluses returning to Babine Lake.

“The surplus sockeye has led to the development of a sustainable fishery that has brought significant economic, social, and ecological benefits to the region,” Taylor says.

As well, Knox points out, on the coast 75 percent of sockeye salmon are caught in gillnets, which result in 50- to 80-percent mortality of bycatch—other species inadvertently trapped in the nets. By comparison, mortality of bycatch caught in upriver fisheries using beach seines is about 3.5 percent.

The Lake Babine Nation uses beach seining and occasionally dip netting; when beach seining, someone is assigned to stand within the net as it is drawn in, releasing other species before they are caught.

…to your table

Lake Babine, along with other First Nations like Gitanyow and Gitxsan, is learning that there’s a growing market for local salmon that’s been sustainably harvested. North Delta Seafoods is one company that focuses on buying sustainable salmon and purchases the majority of Lake Babine’s salmon.

A second is Terrace’s RiverWild Salmon Inc. Along with Babine salmon, the company buys from the Gitxsan and Gitanyow First Nations. Its focus is on sourcing sustainably harvested salmon from terminal inland fisheries.

“We’ve established a set of source criteria,” explains operations manager Bobby Moniz. “At the end of the day, it gives you a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ if these fish are going to meet or exceed your criteria.”

RiverWild was started by Harold Kossler, a local fishing-lodge owner who took pride in the art of smoking fish for his clients. Kossler’s dream was for a “sustainable, responsible type of facility” that processed sustainably harvested salmon, Moniz says.

The dream recently became a reality, with the help of a friend.

Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia outdoor clothing company, is known for his focus on sustainable business practices: the company led the clothing industry in sourcing organic cottons and started the popular One Percent for the Planet program. Chouinard visits northwestern BC regularly to fish and has made lasting relationships in the region. Investing in sustainable salmon seemed a perfect fit.

“Patagonia is probably one of the most progressive, environmental companies in the world,” says Knox, adding that Chouinard has been visiting the Skeena region for over 30 years. “He fell in love with the place and he understands the conservation issues around the fishery.”

Patagonia Provisions, a new branch of the company dedicated to sustainable food choices, is a 50-percent partner in the RiverWild plant. The plant processes hot- and cold-smoked salmon and salmon jerky. It has a storefront in Terrace and is working on expanding sales throughout northern BC. Under the Patagonia Provisions name, it is shipped to the United States and Japan.

On the company’s website, Chouinard says, “The Patagonia Provisions Salmon Project is our effort to change the fishing industry, the same way we’ve changed how we make our clothes. Our goal is to create a new model that demonstrates how selectively harvesting salmon is not only possible, but good business, and can help protect the future of wild salmon.”

Not only does it mean employment for First Nations and sustainably harvested salmon, it also provides the chance to have delicious smoked salmon on your table and the hope that salmon will be in the rivers for many generations to come.