Sturgeon fishing is catch-and-release only on the Fraser River and hugely popular, but closures of side channels between Chilliwack and Hope are aimed at protecting the spawning habitat and the species. (Submitted)

Sturgeon fishing closures coming to side channels in the Lower Fraser

Under review for species at risk designation, the closures are precautionary, says the province

Three channels in the Fraser River between Chilliwack and Hope are being closed to catch-and-release sturgeon fishing for most of the upcoming summer to protect spawning habitat and survival of the species.

The closures enacted by B.C. Fish and Aquatic Habitat Branch will be effective May 15 to July 31, and were quietly announced among changes to the 2019-21 freshwater fishing regulations.

“Sturgeon are currently being reviewed for a designation under the Species At Risk Act, meaning some precautionary regulations need to be in place,” according to an emailed response from the habitat branch.

Jespersen’s Side Channel, Herrling Island Side Channel, and the north Seabird Island Side Channel, “are thought to be three of the most productive, high-use spawning areas” in the Lower Fraser River, and are the focus of the fishing closures.

Side channels in the Lower Fraser closed to sturgeon fishing

The concern is that “capture and release of a large adult sturgeon during the spawning period” could lead to “increased stress and displacement” of the fish.

Province of B.C. is effectively erring on the side of caution to protect white sturgeon. They say numbers show the sturgeon population in the Lower Fraser has been “varied” in number since 2001, with the average at 45,650.

“Studies indicate the population may be in decline (since 2001),” according to provincial reps. “Supporting studies are underway to get better information on the status of sturgeon.

“During the same period, the recreational sturgeon fishery has increased.”

Great River Fishing Adventures owner Dean Werk said sturgeon fishing accounts for about 80 per cent of their income from guiding.

Therefore closure decisions like this needs, impacting so many, to be in conjunction with a “sound” scientific basis, Werk stressed. Those who book sturgeon fishing trips on the Fraser also book local hotels, limousines, lunch caterers and more, with big spinoffs to the communities.

“So first and foremost when the industry grows or maintains itself, it’s a huge economic driver for our community and the surrounding communities,” Werk said.

Groups and fishing advocates have been working with provincial reps on the proposed sturgeon closure issue for months. One of the scariest scenarios floated to guiding reps was the idea of “voluntary sturgeon fishing closures” from the mouth of the Harrison River all the way to Hell’s Gate.

“That would crush my business, plain and simple,” Werk said.

“I am more than happy with closing those three side channel areas, to all fishing, where they have found numerous eggs and critical spawning habitat for both salmon and sturgeon.

“However, what we are not in favour of, and would actively oppose, would be the closing of adjacent areas of the river, which have not been proven to be productive spawning habitat.”

READ MORE: More should be done to protect heart of the Fraser say advocates

Rick Hansen, Honorary chair of the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society put out a call for action in September 2018, to reverse the decline in juvenile sturgeon, and protect habitat like the Lower Fraser side channels.

“Since 1997, we have identified a number of key issues affecting White Sturgeon survival and sustainability in the Fraser River,” Hansen said last fall.

“This includes the identification of several areas that are critical spawning or rearing habitat for White Sturgeon. Many of these key areas are currently under threat of destruction from proposed developments and gravel extraction applications.”

The FRSCS report called on all governments (First Nation, federal, provincial, and municipal) to take “coordinated action to protect sturgeon spawning and rearing habitat, management of in-river net fisheries, and continued efforts to manage and limit the growth of the catch-and-release recreational fishery.”

Examples of key areas include the Herrling and Carey islands near Agassiz, and the Hatzic Eddy in Mission, all of which provide critical sturgeon habitat.

“We are calling for the protection of these areas for the future of White Sturgeon,” Hansen said.

The exact causes for this confirmed decline in juvenile sturgeon abundance are unknown, the report said, but are likely the result of multiple factors including degraded spawning and rearing habitat, reduced food availability, sturgeon mortality resulting from by-catch in salmon fisheries, and physiological stress associated with high levels of capture and handling events in net and recreational fisheries.

The timing of the closed period (May 15 to July 31) includes one week prior to the estimated time of spawning for lower Fraser sturgeon to the estimated time spawning is complete.


@CHWKjourno
jfeinberg@theprogress.com

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