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Mark Lister places a shimmery silver chinook salmon onto the scale at Mill Bay Marina, north of Victoria on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. “I grew it in my bathtub,” jokes Lister, a cook, salmon-fishing enthusiast, and winner of this month’s Saanich Inlet Salmon Challenge, an annual fishing derby. “I just love to fish and it’s fun to have a little competition. Good times.”
While the 8.8-kilogram fish looks big, it pales in comparison to historic catches in the Strait of Georgia, which include a record 32.2-kilogram chinook caught in 1968 during the Tyee Club of British Columbia’s fishing competition in Campbell River.
Still, Lister’s catch could yet prove historic—though for an entirely different reason. He might be the last winner of a Strait of Georgia fishing derby who gets to keep his fish.
New restrictions from Fisheries and Oceans Canada are due imminently. The regulations are aimed at preserving chinook stocks—a favored food of the endangered southern resident killer whales—and anglers are bracing themselves.
The salmon derby as we know it could be at risk, along with much of the money it raises for salmon conservation.
Last year, the federal Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada delivered a bleak assessment of Fraser River chinook: of 12 subpopulations in the river’s watershed, seven were ranked as endangered, four as threatened, and one as being of special concern.
In response, Fisheries and Oceans Canada announced it is looking at two potential approaches to restricting fishing of Fraser-bound chinook targeted to start in April 2019.
One option is to reduce the daily catch limit for sport fishers from two chinook to one. The other option is to outright ban the retention of chinook caught in southern British Columbia’s marine waters.
Typically, a ban on keeping one’s catch would kill a fishing derby outright. Anglers would have to release their fish after a quick photo rather than haul them to the dock to be officially weighed.
But some derbies have found creative ways around that restriction. This summer’s Vancouver Chinook Classic, for instance, will be strictly catch and release. When an angler catches a fish, an official chase boat will pull alongside and estimate the fish’s weight based on its length and girth to determine the derby winner.
Clearly, not all derbies are willing to go this route. The Sidney Anglers Association event has been postponed due to the uncertainty of federal regulations.
The Oak Bay Marine Group has canceled its annual fishing tournament, though for slightly different reasons. The group cites low ticket sales and the government’s recent implementation of no-fishing zones within Juan de Fuca Strait—where the derby is usually held—designed to protect critical killer whale feeding habitat.
On Saltspring Island, Moby’s Fishing Derby is also on hiatus. Pub owner Dale Schweighardt, the derby’s sponsor, points out that catch and release has its problems. “If you’re just out there attacking fish and putting them back in the water, that’s not exactly the best for the species,” Schweighardt says.
One could reasonably argue that the death of the salmon derby is a good thing, and that providing prizes—cash, fishing gear, guided trips at private fishing lodges—for the pleasure killing of some of the last big fish is an outdated and reckless activity.
The counterargument is that salmon derbies raise significant cash for salmon conservation initiatives, including hatcheries that enhance stocks.
The Vancouver-based Pacific Salmon Foundation (PSF) makes no apologies for accepting almost CAN $400,000 annually from fishing derbies. Cory Matheson, the foundation’s senior manager of business development, acknowledges the apparent contradiction between saving and slaughtering chinook salmon, but argues that derbies allow the PSF to meet with local fishing communities to promote conservation and proper catch-and-release methods. “I have a pretty strong recreational fishing background so I might be a little biased,” says Matheson.
But even this flow of cash—like the fish themselves—appears to be shrinking. This month’s Saanich Inlet Salmon Challenge, for instance, sold 160 tickets at $75 apiece, with proceeds going to the PSF. In comparison, the Sun Free Salmon Derby, a Vancouver Sun-sponsored competition initiated in 1940, attracted 7,200 participants during its final year in 1984.
Matheson argues that modern salmon derbies operate much differently than they did at their peak. “For all the warts of derbies, or their past history seen so negatively, I think there are big positives,” he says. There’s greater public awareness of the threats to salmon, he says, and derbies operate with tighter restrictions. “The mindset is changing, slowly but surely, coast-wide,” he insists, noting sport fishers take about 10 to 15 percent of adult chinook returning to the Fraser River.
Back in Mill Bay, marina owner Andrew Purdey tells a crowd gathered for the Saanich Inlet Salmon Challenge’s prize announcements that sport anglers are conservationists first and, come what may from the federal government, the derby has a future. “Whatever it takes to make the stocks better, based on true science, we’d all be behind it,” Purdey says.
Matheson is less enthusiastic, suggesting “some, but not many” fishers would participate in a catch-and-release event.
As for Lister—who happens to work for Purdey—he is all for conservation, but would just as soon take his chinook home to eat. “A catch-and-release derby?” he says. “I wouldn’t be happy about it. But if that’s what it has to be, I’d do it.”
The future of the derby may depend upon it.