St'at'imc fishers defy DFO closure

St’at’imc fishers were on the Fraser River fishing rocks Friday morning, Aug. 14 despite an announcement from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans of a closure on the Chilko Lake and Quesnel River sockeye fisheries.

The closure was effective at midnight Aug. 14 and was attributed to record-high water temperatures and a smaller than expected sockeye run.

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Later that morning, four Fishery officers were on scene at the Old Bridge just north of Lillooet as a group of St’at’imc singers and drummers sang the “Constitution Song” and other protest songs.

St’at’imc leaders Chief Michelle Edwards, Chief Shelley Leach, Chief Kevin Whitney, Chief Darrell Bob, former Chief Robert Shintah and Councillors Perry Redan and Robert Leech stood in a circle at the west end of the Old Bridge and spoke for approximately an hour with DFO Fishery Officer Barry Zunti. 

They told Zunti many members of their bands had not yet had an opportunity to fish or had not caught what they require for the year.

“We’re here as leaders to support our people,” Chief Whitney told Zunti.

The St’at’imc leaders requested a face-to-face meeting between local chiefs and DFO area director Stuart Cartwright. Zunti said he would forward their request to Cartwright.  

They raised several topics of concern in their meeting with Officer Zunti. Concerns included:

-       - the short notification period for the closure

-       - the guns and pepper spray carried by the DFO officers

-       - the federal government’s refusal to implement the recommendations of the Cohen Commission

-       - the DFO’s “divide and conquer” policy which they said tries to pit bands and tribal councils against each other when shortages occur

-       - lack of detailed information about the numbers of salmon in the run. “Find the numbers first,” said Robert Leech. “”Instead of opening the fisheries down there right away, let the fish come here first.”

-       - ways to improve communication and education

-       - the effects of pollution and environmental degradation on the Fraser River

-       - the long-term consequences of DFO’s actions on the fishery resource.

DFO says the run was closed to ensure a sufficient number of sockeye made it to the spawning grounds and to ensure that some of the First Nations upstream had sufficient access to the fishery. St’at’imc fishers had been fishing the run since Aug. 1.

“We do not take hundreds of thousands of fish out of the system. Where are we going to put them?” said Chief Edwards. “These fish are coming by and we’ve respected these fish for 10,000 years or more. They’ve been our livelihood.”

Three DFO officers remained on scene Friday, observing the fishing, explaining the rationale for the closure and gathering evidence. Local aboriginal fishers could potentially be charged for defying the closure and leaders could also be charged for counselling people to fish despite the ban.

During the discussion at the Old Bridge, Chief Edwards told Zunti that DFO would be “wasting your time and ours” if charges were laid. She referred to several previous court decisions upholding aboriginal fishing rights.

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