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Port Renfrew fishers shocked by sudden chinook salmon cuts

Anglers will only be allowed to retain one chinook a day. Charter-boat operators worry clients will cancel visits.
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Fishing vessels at the government dock in Sooke this week. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Port Renfrew sports fishing companies say they’ve been blindsided by a sudden decision that will see their chinook salmon catch cut in half.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans announced Tuesday — just days before Saturday’s opening — that anglers will only be allowed to keep one chinook a day. That’s down from the two previously allowed, the number charter operators were telling their guests, who booked far in advance with hopes of bringing salmon home.

“This is going to really hurt us,” said Matt Wiley, who runs a charter boat out of Port Renfrew and has a list of guests from Canada and the U.S. who specifically booked to catch chinook.

“Most of the people who come here to fish really want chinook,” said Wiley. “That’s what we’re known for in Renfrew … now you wonder if they’ll come or even come back.”

Size restrictions of between 45 and 80 centimetres were also announced, with the largest equating to about 15 pounds.

Wiley and about 20 other charters that operate out of Port Renfrew are contacting their clients about the new regulations, hoping the cancellation rate will be low.

Sports fishing is a major economic driver in Port Renfrew, contributing $16.5 million to the local economy, according to a 2018 study by the local chamber of commerce.

The village of about 350, including the Pacheedaht First Nation, has been growing as a recreational mecca, as people flock to the area for fishing and hiking the Juan de Fuca and West Coast trail systems.

Chinook are a premium sports fish, valued for their meat and vigorous fight.

Charter companies say without the prospect of chinook retention during prime months, customers often balk at booking, though other salmon and sport fish are plentiful.

The chinook retention limit is in place in Areas 20-1 and 20-2 — a stretch of Juan de Fuca Strait from Port Renfrew to the Bonilla Point Lighthouse — until July 31. Boats from Sooke and Ucluelet are also expected to flood into the area.

The two-chinook limit will be reinstated on Aug. 31.

There has been a zero- retention policy since April 1 for all chinook fishing.

DFO is deploying three enforcement vessels in Port Renfrew this weekend to ensure fishers follow the new rules.

That’s a level of enforcement never seen before, said Port Renfrew land developer Paul Ablack, who spent 11 years as an executive on the Port Renfrew Chamber of Commerce.

The one-chinook-per-day measure is also being enforced this weekend around Haida Gwaii, portions of the Island’s West Coast (Areas 121, 123) and northern Vancouver Island (Area 110).

The measures are meant to protect Fraser River stocks of concern that are migrating through the area, said Mark Frisson, DFO recreational fishing co-ordinator.

He said Port Renfrew will have enhanced enforcement by DFO officials because it’s one of the first areas opening to the fishery, and because RCMP resources are stretched thin.

In a letter to the Sport Fishing Advisory Board, DFO said the move to cut retention of chinook came after consultation with scientists.

“The management objective remains to manage Canadian fisheries in a highly precautionary manner to allow as many fish to pass through to the spawning grounds as possible,” DFO said.

Due to recent productivity declines and environmental uncertainty, “our priority remains conservation; a precautionary approach suggests that we need to maintain a low level of impact.”

DFO isn’t ruling out further restrictions to the fishery, pointing out that environmental conditions in rivers and streams will be challenging this year due to lower-than-average levels of snow pack and high temperatures.

The regulations come as “disturbing” news to Port Renfrew, the community’s chamber of commerce said. “This was to be an exciting and busy opening weekend for the season,” the chamber said in a statement. “Accommodations and charter operators and businesses are counting on this traffic and the revenue to save their season, only to have the rug pulled out from under them just days before.”

Ablack said the chamber took offence at not being told directly about the new regulations. He said it normally has a seat at the table when decisions are made, but this time the community received a DFO letter via the Sport Fishing Advisory Board.

For Wiley, who spends about $60,000 a season on fuel, tackle, moorage and other expenses, the new regulations could tip the scales to a money-losing year if clients cancel.

“This could be the last straw for a lot of us in Port Renfrew,” said Wiley. “You make plans, spend money getting ready and then DFO throws this at you a few days before the season opens. It’s not only going to hit us, but it will sting the other businesses here.”

DFO is continuing plans for closures, sanctuaries and speed limits in areas around the Island in efforts to protect chinook stocks for the endangered southern resident killer whales, whose diet is almost exclusively chinook salmon. The measures also focus on limiting acoustic and physical disturbances and contaminants.

Kendra Moore, acting regional manager for marine mammals at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said the closures have been in place since 2018 and will remain. Commercial and ­recreational salmon fishery will be closed in portions of ­Swiftsure Bank, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the southern Gulf Islands. Sanctuary zones for whales off Pender and Saturna islands where no vessels are allowed are also in place.

Lewis Freeman of Victoria-based No Limit Charters said his company has learned to live without chinook retentions. “We do catch and release,” he said. “Not everyone likes it, but it’s what we’ve got. You can buy salmon in Costco, but what we have Costco doesn’t have — it’s the experience.”

Freeman said they also catch halibut and some rockfish. The season started out slow, but has been picking up. This week, he had two loads of tourists from the U.S. south who stopped over while on a cruise to Alaska.

dkloster@timescolonist.com

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