DFO hosts first round of consultation on sturgeon

The Department of Fisheries of Oceans (DFO) will return to Lillooet for another consultation with stakeholders in April 2019 before making any recommendations on managing the Upper Fraser River sturgeon fishery.

That fishery includes the mid-Fraser fishery in the Lillooet area.

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Recommendations will be submitted to the federal government in the fall of 2020 and a decision will be made by the federal cabinet in February of 2021.

About 40 people from Lillooet and up and down the river attended a three-hour information and input session on the Upper Fraser River White Sturgeon Species at Risk Act (SARA) process on Nov. 27.

Presentations were given by Pippa Shepherd, Freshwater Team Lead for DFO Species at Risk, and Erin Gertzen, White Sturgeon Recovery Planner for DFO.

The phrase “allowable harm” was mentioned several times during the presentations. It refers to how much harm a population can sustain i.e. how many individual sturgeon can be removed from a population without jeopardizing the population and while ensuring it is still capable of recovery.

Four possible management scenarios were presented:

– a Baseline scenario which describes measures that were in place during the 2017 fishing season. The Baseline scenario sets the standard from which changes described in other scenarios will be measured.

- Management Scenario 1. Do Not List is a management scenario that outlines mitigation measures that would be implemented under other legislation if the Upper Fraser River white sturgeon is delisted from SARA.

- Management Scenario 2a. Under this scenario, additional management measures other than the baseline would be listed if the species is listed as endangered under SARA. General prohibitions would be in place, but with the ability to issue permits and exemptions for fishing.

According to Shepherd, 2a is “something different for the mid-Fraser where it looks like data are indicating there is more allowable harm.” Gertzen said 2a would recognize that local residents are reporting the population is healthier in Lillooet compared to the Nechako system in northern B.C.

4. Management Scenario 2 b. In addition to the Baseline scenario, if the species is listed as endangered under SARA, general prohibitions would be in place with a limited ability to issue permits. “2b means everything is closed,” said Shepherd.

Concerned about the fate of the fishery, a number of people asked which scenario – 2a or 2b – would be most likely for the mid-Fraser fishery.

One local guide also suggested the ministry’s presentation “seems like a trick…you’re pushing us through a funnel.”

DFO was urged to treat the Lillooet area as a stand-alone area and not lump it in with the Upper Fraser. “Once we go down that road, that’s a very hard rock to turn over,” one member of the public said. “That’s a big lump to get turned back over.”

Pippa Shepherd told the meeting, “We can’t guarantee you an outcome.”

Shepherd added, “But we certainly can’t propose a good recommendation if we don’t have your information, and if we don’t have as much data as possible on what potentials are for realistic allowable harm. We all want to see the preservation of the species and make sure that we’re not over-harvesting or over-impacting…We’re just trying to get as much information as we can to propose a reasonable path forward. You will know what that is before it goes to cabinet.”

However, she cautioned, “Cabinet can do anything it likes.”

Another DFO official also noted, “Fishing regulations are independent of listings. Listings are about recovering the species. Regulations are about protecting the species.”

Updates on local efforts on white sturgeon in the mid-Fraser were provided by Bob Butcher from the B.C. Conservation Officer Service and Steve Alain, Chair of the Lillooet Sturgeon Committee.

Butcher told the meeting tagging information collected by local guides and fishers indicates there is a “healthy, viable” sturgeon population between the Bridge River Rapids and Hell’s Gate.

He said from 1995 to 1999, a study tagged approximately 500 sturgeon between Hell’s Gate and the Bridge River rapids.

Since 2008, guides have been using scanners to more accurately determine the size of the sturgeon population in the Lillooet area. According to Butcher, from 2008 to 2015, 877 new tags were applied to individual fish between the Bridge River rapids and Hell’s Gate. Those efforts were reduced in 2014 and 2015 probably because of “lack of incentive or lack of feedback.” In 2014, 32 tags were applied, with only 16 applied in 2015.

Tagging then ramped up again, resulting in 458 new tags on the fish in 2016, followed by 680 new tags in 2017. This year, 392 new tags were applied.

Overall, Butcher said 2,412 new tags have been applied to the pre-historic fish between Bridge River and Hell’s Gate since 2001. Adding in the 500 fish from the earlier study, that makes a total of 2,912 sturgeon.

He added that those tags will stay with the fish for their entire lives and a record has been kept of the location where every fish was tagged.

Steve Alain explained how the sturgeon fishery has changed over the years in the Lillooet-area, evolving from a men-only sport to a family activity that draws families here for vacations centred around the sturgeon fishing, with other activities such as hiking, biking and tours also included.

He discussed how the Lillooet Sturgeon Committee was established to bring stakeholders - charter businesses, guides and local citizens - to the same table and how it has helped participants find common ground.

Facilitator Jessica Bratty commended the efforts underway in Lillooet, noting that the tagging data already collected and the creation of the Sturgeon Committee place this area farther along in the process. “Most places don’t have that,” commented Bratty.

The overall economic value of the white sturgeon fishery and its importance to the people who depend on it for a living were also discussed.

The DFO is asking local sturgeon charter businesses, fishing guides and businesses that also rely on the fishery – visitor accommodations, sporting goods stores, etc. - to provide information for a cost-benefit analysis of the mid-Fraser sturgeon fishery centered around Lillooet.

The cost benefit analysis measures the economic impact of any changes in catch, effort and/or harvest patterns by different users as well as potential future benefits of species recovery.

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