Fisheries officers have doubled their patrols on the lower Fraser River to battle poachers who are illegally catching threatened sockeye salmon to sell into the black market.
All fishing for sockeye has been shut down in response to a low run size and dangerously high river temperatures to ensure as many of the salmon get upriver to spawn as possible.
But Department of Fisheries and Oceans area director Herb Redekopp said the “full-out conservation closure” hasn’t deterred illegal fishing on the river.
“Last night we ran into another group of poachers,” he said Friday, adding officers made arrests and seized illegally caught salmon, gear and a boat.
“That’s happened nightly in numerous groups and in different areas of the river.”
He said eight vessels had been seized as of Friday, along with 50 nets and 27 investigations are in progress that have or are expected to result in charges under the Fisheries Act.
The most intense illegal fishing is happening between Surrey and Spuzzum, in various hot spots around Agassiz, Chilliwack and the Fraser Canyon.
He said poaching can be particularly lethal at the canyon, where salmon heading upriver use backeddies to rest and an illegal net dropped in can quickly pull up a full set.
Redekopp said DFO is using night vision imaging, remote cameras, helicopters and other aircraft to detect probable poachers for interception on the ground.
“We’re using every bit of technology available to us as well as intelligence that we’re gathering from the public.”
No commercial or recreational fishing for sockeye has been allowed this year.
Pent-up demand for sockeye has driven prices up and prompted much more illegal fishing than in past years, he said.
“There’s a huge illegal marketplace for black market salmon.”
Fishermen are getting about $20 a fish, Redekopp said, and some buyers are paying up to $50 each.
Some of the fish being sold now may have been caught in aboriginal food fisheries that were legally conducted earlier in the summer but are not authorized for sale.
Redekopp said many poachers busted on the river appear to have long criminal histories and may be fishing as a source of easy money to feed drug addictions.
The maximum penalty for illegal fishing is a $100,000 fine, along with forfeiture of gear, vessel or vehicle, and up to two years in jail.
Repeat offenders do sometimes get jail time, Redekopp said.
He said officers are also targeting people who buy illegally caught sockeye.
Fish sold out of the back of a truck or door-to-door are almost certainly poached, he said, adding people should buy from a recognized commercial outlet.
– Jeff Nagel