Thousands of chum salmon that are supposed to be released alive as a conservation measure are being thrown overboard dead or dying in a North Coast commercial fishery, two fisheries conservation organizations have charged.
"This is possibly the most cavalier and unsustainable fishery currently operating on Canada's West Coast," said Aaron Hill of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society.
"It's appalling," said Greg Taylor of SkeenaWild Conservation Trust.
A Department of Fisheries and Oceans official, however, said he thinks the fishery is largely in compliance with regulations, although there have been some charges laid against fishermen for improperly handling chum salmon.
Seine boats fishing for pink salmon, in Area 6, southeast of Kitimat, are required to release chum alive, because the species has been in decline.
But the fishery, in a remote area near the head of Douglas Channel, isn't closely monitored and large numbers of chum aren't thrown back until after they have stopped thrashing about on deck, the conservationists say.
Mr. Taylor estimated 73,000 chum have been released by fishermen so far this season – and he thought few of those fish could have survived.
"It is just insane – and they do it as a conservation measure," said Mr. Taylor. "I don't blame the fishermen for this. I think DFO just doesn't have a handle on it."
Mr. Hill agreed, and blamed the problem on the competitive aspect of the fishery, saying fishermen don't want to waste time releasing chum salmon when they have pinks to process and get into the hold.
He said DFO should move to a quota system, so the fishery is governed by the amount of salmon each boat can catch, not by daily time limits.
"They need to slow this fishery down so [fishermen]are not in this race to catch fish and they can have the time to sort the fish carefully and return them to the water with the least possible harm," said Mr. Hill.
Dale Gueret, chief of resource management for DFO on the North Coast, agrees there are concerns with the way chum salmon are being discarded, but he said a lot of fishermen are playing by the rules and carefully releasing chum alive.
"There are some vessels that aren't handling [the chum]very well and there have been charges laid. There are some vessels though that are handling them, doing the proper thing and releasing them," said Mr. Gueret. "We have observed some bad behaviour and we have observed some good behaviour as well."
He didn't immediately have available any details on how many fishermen had been charged, or what fines they faced.
Mr. Gueret said if Mr. Hill or Mr. Taylor have any hard information concerning the improper release of chums, he would like to get it.
"They've expressed their concern but they've never said they had personal observations of it, and if they did we'd be more than happy to take their statements," he said. "If we have bad behaviour and they've got information about a boat that was not handling [chum]well, you know, we'd certainly be happy to hear that kind of stuff and if they want to talk to our fisheries officers we could charge [the offenders]"
Mr. Gueret said the release of chum salmon is mandatory because stocks in the Central Coast have been in serious decline for several years.
But he added the high number of chums now being caught in the pink salmon fishery is a sign that chum seem to be on the rebound.
"There is pretty good chum stock in the area … because they are getting quite a few [in the commercial catch] So we think the situation is under control and being monitored," he said.