The bumper crop of sockeye salmon surging up Interior rivers has a budding Kamloops native commercial fishery bringing ocean tools to inland waters.
A 30-foot purse seine fishing boat will be put to use this fall as millions of sockeye pass through Kamloops Lake bound for the Shuswap, said Murray Ross, director of the Secwepemc Fisheries Commission.
The boat was hired by the commission to fish the deep water of Kamloops Lake for several days during the peak of the sockeye's passage, he said. It arrived at Kamloops Lake late Wednesday.
If the fish show up in the numbers predicted, Regan Birch thinks it could be possible to catch 100,000 sockeye as they pass through Kamloops Lake.
"There is plenty of fish, but whether we can . . . get (100,000 sockeye) transferred to the beach and lifted to the trucks, well, we'll see. That would be 500,000 pounds. That will be a bit of work," Birch said.
Birch is the owner of the Pacific Fisher, the 30-foot commercial fishing boat now moored off the shore at Savona in Kamloops Lake. He's been hired by the Secwepemc Fisheries Commission to help them net their haul of a bumper crop of sockeye soon to pass en route to the Shuswap.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada said Tuesday 25 million sockeye are expected to return to Fraser River systems this fall. More than 16 million of those fish are bound for the Interior, including Shuswap Lake and tributaries and the Adams River.
Fisheries managers dramatically increased the Secwepemc's allocation of fish and are actively encouraging the native group to find ways to maximize its harvest.
For the past few seasons, the Secwepemc Fisheries Commission has experimented with various forms of commercial fishing, including gillnetting, in Kamloops Lake.
The fishermen have found varying degrees of success as they try different methods, locations, net depths and mesh sizes. Caught fish have been rapidly transported to a native-owned fish processing plant at Lytton. The packaged fish have then been marketed and sold.
The Pacific Fisher, manned by Birch and native crews, will still target chinook salmon this year with gill nets, but maximizing the catch of the massive sockeye run will be the main objective.
Purse seiners work by surrounding fish with a large, tight-meshed net. The bottom of the net is drawn tight, capturing fish within and the whole net is pulled to the surface.
The method has the potential to capture thousands of fish at a time, while maintaining the ability to sort and live-release unwanted species like coho salmon or trout.
The fish will be transported to processing plants in the Interior and the Lower Mainland, dressed, cut and blast-frozen. The fish can then be stored for considerable time as the Fisheries Commission finds ways to sell the fish.
Birch said his boat used to fish the Lower Fraser River and Johnstone Strait until several years ago, when the federal government bought out his licence as it reduced the size of the west coast commercial fleet.
He doesn't see issues that will make fishing Kamloops Lake different than fishing in saltwater. If anything, it could prove easier as all the fish will enter the lake through a narrow corridor - the mouth of the Thompson River.
"Millions of fish are going to come through a funnel 600 feet wide," Birch said. "It should be pretty straightforward."
Ross said most of the caught salmon will be processed at a native-run plant near Lytton, but some of it will also be transported to processing plants in the Lower Mainland.
Ross agreed it is not particularly efficient to catch fish in the Interior and take them back by truck to the very place they passed earlier in the season, but there is little choice this year.
"Catching them could be the easy part," Ross said. "We can't develop all our (processing) infrastructure all in the same year."
After the fishing is done, Ross said, the commission will develop plans to sell the frozen fish. He expects they will have whole dressed fish, steaks and smoked products, all vacuum-packed.
"We are not going to try to sell fresh fish this year. It has a very short shelf life," Ross said.
Senior federal fisheries officials from Ottawa are expected out this year to see how the fishery goes.
"There is a lot of interest this year," he said.
The bands will also operate a beach seining net and other river netting projects as they continue to search for the most productive methods for a commercial fishery, Ross said.
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