Despite catching 20 to 30 salmon every time he went out on the Fraser River so far this season, Robert Gagnon had to bring his nets in for the last time this season on Thursday morning.
Gagnon had been one of only a small handful of Lheidli T'enneh fishermen exercising their Aboriginal fishing rights on the river this year and was surprised when the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) announced the Fraser would be closed to fishing as of Thursday evening.
Warmer than normal water temperatures have forced a staged closure of all aboriginal and recreational fishing along the river this summer. The closures have been working their way upstream and now it's the Lheidli T'enneh's turn to pull their nets.
Gagnon, who has been fishing on the Fraser for over a decade, said the relatively strong salmon return combined with so few Aboriginal fishermen from the Lheidli T'enneh band means the catch they were taking was sustainable.
Gagnon fishes with his father and he's aware of only one other group that's been on the water this year.
The median forecast return this year was 4.7 million fish, including about 3.1 million for the summer run. So far DFO has estimated the actual summer run size between two million and 2.2 million fish.
"What's five million fish with three guys fishing, catching that many a day?," Gagnon said. "That's not even a dent [in the population]."
DFO B.C. Interior area director Les Jantz said the closure is necessary to ensure enough fish reach their spawning grounds. With water temperatures much higher than the ideal range of 15 C to 17 C, the risk of mortality has increased, especially among female fish.
Jantz said the temperature on the river has reached as high as 22 C at times and experience in past years with warm weather, like 1988 and 2004, indicate the need to limit fishing to preserve the stocks.
One Lheidli T'enneh net will remain in place over the weekend and into early next week for sampling purposes.
The season was open for Aboriginal gill net fishermen between July 19-26, but was shutdown for just over a week to allow the early Stuart and Bowron runs to make their way through. It was opened again on Aug. 4.
Traditionally, Gagnon said the Aboriginal fishery continues until late September or even early October.
Although Gagnon found the timing of the closure curious. The strong run this year means he'll still end the year with a full freezer and enough fish to last him until spring. He also shares his catch other family members and his father supplies many of the elders in the community with salmon.
Gagnon said he was worried the government-mandated closure could hurt others in the community who hadn't put a net in the water yet.
"What if some people decided they wanted to fish this year? Lheidli citizens have the right to fish on this river," he said.