As salmon are ‘cooking’ in hot water, Lake Babine Nation stands up to Fisheries and Oceans Canada

The federal government is supposed to manage salmon populations — but Lake Babine Nation says its approach is far from precautionary. The nation has closed a fishery itself for the sake of the salmon and people who rely on them
Salmon hangs in a smokehouse at Nedo’ats (Old Fort) on August 22, 2023

This story is part of Nourish, a series about how First Nations are fuelling their people with sustainably harvested, healthy and culturally safe foods amid a changing climate

Members of Lake Babine Nation stand at the Babine River fish counting fence, waiting to collect salmon on a warm August morning. Workers bustle around the massive concrete structure, pushing carts filled with talok (sockeye). One worker wrestles with a large spring salmon, trying to release it back to the water. 

The whole community is bustling: harvesting, cutting, smoking and canning salmon to share with the community to stock up for winter. But the sockeye are late coming through the fence this year. The water is low and warm, after a hot summer that has been rife with wildfires. 

“The fish aren’t moving through,” Jason Charlie, councillor for Lake Babine Nation, says. “If the water gets too warm, they might not even make it farther. They might just die before they even spawn.”

A dip net full of salmon
While the wild sockeye runs are lower than historic numbers, Lake Babine Nation fishers were able to harvest fish for community members.

Many others, in Lake Babine Nation and beyond, share Charlie’s concern. The Babine River is an integral tributary for Skeena sockeye, which is a major sockeye run in B.C., second only to the Fraser River. Skeena sockeye are central to Lake Babine Nation health and economy. Every bad year has future ramifications. If fewer salmon return to spawn one year, it can mean a lower return four or five years down the line — the length of the sockeye life cycle.

The number of Skeena sockeye have been dropping steadily for the past century — wild stocks have plummeted, and the most successful stocks come from two hatcheries. The nation saw the lowest returns to Babine Lake tributaries this year that they have ever recorded.

This year, the nation unilaterally called for the closure of the recreational fishery at Babine River — without support from the federal government.

“We need to protect the salmon, so we can continue this great run we have every year for future generations,” Chief Murphy Abraham says, adding they are committed to doing what it takes to preserve the salmon run for the future.

“We’re not trying to make billions and millions of dollars off of the salmon. We have a very small commercial fishery, but we just do what we can to provide for our nation’s people and surrounding nations as well. It’s just making sure that the next harvesting year — and the year after, and the year after — continues to be more fruitful.”

“We need to protect the salmon, so we can continue this great run we have every year for future generations.” Chief Murphy Abraham
A dipnetter fishes for salmon at the Babine River counting fence

Canada’s removal of fish weirs caused generations of ‘hardship’

For Lake Babine Nation, preserving Skeena sockeye for culture and food comes down to jurisdiction and sovereignty. 

In 2020, the nation signed an agreement with Canada and B.C. to start the process of establishing title over their lands and waters. Even this first step has been heralded as a landmark, and Charlie says part of the journey is taking back stewardship of salmon. 

“We want to be working towards managing everything,” he says. He wants to see community members trained up to be guardians, technicians and biologists and work with federal and provincial employees to monitor the vast territory. 

“Who knows the land better than our own First Nations?” 

While Charlie was growing up, people would wash the fish right in the lake, and smokehouses dotted the shore. They carry on their teaching, despite the fact that through the 20th century, the federal government systematically displaced Lake Babine people from their fishing villages and destroyed their weirs. 

They are still recovering from the poverty this caused, Verna Power, councillor for the Nedo’ats (Old Fort) community, says.

“It created hardship. We went from living off the land to depending on [grocery stores], creating a big hindrance on the people,” she says. “It hindered the way we hunt on the land, how we hunt.”

Salmon season is “the most sacred,” she says, and during the whole process, Lake Babine people have one central goal in mind: “Make sure you don’t lose one salmon.” Every salmon is precious, and every bit deserves to be saved.

Salmon swimming through a counting fence
During harvesting, Lake Babine Nation fisheries workers count the fish they let past the fence.

Recreational fishers allowed by DFO, but barred by BC Parks

Babine Lake is 153 kilometres long, the longest natural lake in B.C., and 90 per cent of Skeena sockeye spawn in its watershed. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, commonly called DFO, and Lake Babine Nation co-manage the Babine River fish counting fence, a huge structure lined with pens where fish accumulate to be counted by employees and then some are harvested and some are released. Passing through the fence can be a challenging experience for salmon — but the data collected informs conservation.

Before colonization, the ancient village Tse Tesli stood at this site, dotted with an array of fish weirs — fence-like structures, traditionally made of wood, built in the river to trap some fish while also allowing the nation to monitor how many are returning to spawn.

Lake Babine Nation says it has argued for years that the Babine River recreational fishery needs to be subject to more conservation measures. The fishery is right next to the fence, an ideal place to fish where salmon are backed up waiting to pass through. But the nation says the stress of passing through the fence, in addition to being fished by grizzly bears and then by recreational fishers, is too much for the salmon. Salmon are facing high temperatures and low water levels, and have been declining for decades. A 2019 study found Skeena sockeye have declined 75 per cent since 1913.

The nation says Fisheries and Oceans Canada continued to drag its feet — so, they unilaterally announced a closure before the planned opening date of Aug. 1. 

Fisheries and Oceans Canada maintained the fishery was still open, and told The Tyee they were confident low flow and high temperatures wouldn’t threaten the recreational or commercial fishery. A stalemate ensued, with Lake Babine sending educators on site to let recreational fishers know why they had issued their own closure for the area. 

The nation’s lawyer, Kelly Lindsay, says they noticed a big decrease in how many recreational fishers showed up. For those that did show up, most hadn’t heard about the nation’s closure and “when they heard they went away,” she says. “There’s some solidarity there.”

Lake Babine Nation fisheries worker counting salmon
Heidi West counts salmon as the fish pass the Babine River counting fence.

In an emailed statement, Fisheries and Oceans Canada says the number of Skeena sockeye has been “well above the threshold identified to meet conservation requirements.” Again, Lake Babine emphasizes this is due to enhanced populations and wild stocks are much lower than historic abundance.

In a gridlock with the feds, Lake Babine Nation also engaged with BC Parks. Grizzly bears were descending on the area to feast on sockeye and berries, and there were multiple altercations with humans. Lake Babine pointed out the risk of allowing people in the area when it was so active with grizzlies, and on Aug. 9, BC Parks closed the Babine Corridor Park, where the recreational fishery takes place. 

Fisheries and Oceans Canada had not wavered, but Lake Babine’s wish to see the salmon undisturbed by recreational fishers was realized.

It was a victory, but still, the sockeye returned slowly. Fisheries and Oceans Canada cut the commercial fishery quota in half on Aug. 23, due to lower numbers than expected. The department tells The Narwhal the estimate for the Skeena sockeye return was over 2 million in July, and so recreational retention was increased, but then the estimate of returning sockeye declined below 2 million in August, so they reduced the limits again. Lake Babine members were still able to collect fish at the fence because, under the Constitution, Indigenous food fisheries come second only to conservation. 

Young grizzly bear standing in shallow water
A young grizzly fishes for salmon at the Babine River counting fence. In lean years, the potential for dangerous bear-human interactions increases as the bears compete with recreational fishers for the fish.
Salmon in shallow water, pictured from above

It seemed Lake Babine’s fears of detrimental effects from a hot, dry year may have been confirmed. Against a backdrop of Canada’s worst wildfire year, and the hottest year on Earth, Skeena sockeye were not immune to the pressure.

There’s a temperature threshold at which sockeye salmon start feeling adverse effects and could be threatened, though Lake Babine and DFO disagree what that temperature is. To lessen the harm on the overall population, Lake Babine Nation will institute fishery closures if the water has weekly averages of 15.5 C or daily temperatures of 17.5 C.

After the nation announced its closure in late July, Fisheries and Oceans Canada came out saying that the threshold for harm is 21 C — a number it says is backed by science, but that Lindsay says was “pulled out of a hat.”

“They start cooking at 15 C,” Charlie says.

DFO tells The Narwhal it was prepared to implement closures if stress or pre-spawn mortality “became evident.” Again there is disagreement here, as Lake Babine sources identified signs of stress and pre-spawn mortality at the fence. 

The department says 1.17 million adult sockeye have passed through the Babine fence as of Sep. 21, exceeding the escapement target of 1.05 million.

DFO has ‘ignored’ and ‘underfunded’ Lake Babine for decades, community members say

In the fishing village of Old Fort, Verna Power sits in the shade on a sunny August afternoon — nets in the water, and smokehouses full of fish a short distance away. The smokehouses hold enough salmon to feed between 15 and 20 families. Fish may be only half-dried to be fully cooked later, or fully smoke-dried, which is called beh’ in the Nedut’en language. 

Canada systematically removed Lake Babine fish weirs in the 20th century and accused Lake Babine people of overharvesting, even though Lake Babine’s harvesting system closely monitored salmon populations and had existed for generations, Power explains. What had changed was the explosion of commercial fisheries and canneries on the coast. 

At the same time, the government targeted their knowledge systems, Power says, flying planes over the community to identify children to take away to residential school. There are stories of children hiding in bushes, and being poked out of hiding by long sticks.

The removal of the weirs denigrated the nation’s food security. Now, their focus is on bringing fishing and harvesting skills back.

Fish nets are set out to dry on the shores of the lake at Nedo’ats.
Fish nets drying
Nedo’ats roughly translates to “outside the white man.” The original village was a few kilometres away and when colonizers moved in, the community relocated to its current location. A dilapidated white church dominating the skyline tells the story of how those colonizers followed.
Nedo'ats (Old Fort) on Lake Babine Nation territory

A major point of contention between the nation and the feds is the Barricade Treaty. The nation holds documents that reference its signing, and have oral history of negotiations in which the nation agreed to have their fish weirs removed if Canada provided fishing equipment for its future members, so they could still fish. Elder Beverly Michell, who runs fish camps, recalls still being sent nets in the 1960s before the support dwindled. But now, Power says Fisheries and Oceans denies this agreement exists. 

This is a complex disagreement the nation wants to sort out. Having boats and nets provided would make a huge difference in making fishing more accessible for lower income people, Power says. Otherwise, it can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars for one individual to outfit themselves.

“How are they supposed to afford that when they’re on income assistance?” she asks. “How are they even supposed to come out here and learn if they can’t even afford to learn, if they can’t even afford to touch it? The government needs to acknowledge that they promised the boats, motors and the nets.”

When asked what Lake Babine’s relationship with Fisheries and Oceans Canada is like, Power says, “what relationship?” Others sitting nearby, also working at the fishing village, overhear this and laugh. “Would be nice to talk about one if there was one,” she adds. She says for decades Lake Babine has been “ignored” and “underfunded.”

Verna Power from Lake Babine Nation
Verna Power says Lake Babine Nation has been ignored and underfunded by the federal government for decades.

Lake Babine went to Ottawa for an in-person meeting with the federal fisheries department last year, and the nation’s lawyer, Lindsay, says it was their first meeting with a fisheries minister since 1906.

“We were assured another meeting early in the new year, which has not materialized,” she says, adding it’s hard to get a response, let alone a regular meeting.

Abraham says former fisheries minister Joyce Murray assured the nation they would get an incremental fisheries agreement to cabinet, which would increase funding and address some immediate conservation needs. But it was kicked down the road and then the minister was moved out of the position in July 2023, leaving them waiting again.

Abraham says they will enforce their own laws against the wishes of the feds, as they did with the recreational fishery — but ideally, they wouldn’t have to take that approach.

“I hope to bring them to the table and say, ‘okay, let’s sit down and really talk about shared decision making.’ ”

The nation says Canada’s funding to Lake Babine fisheries hasn’t increased since 1992 — despite inflation racking up costs for necessary equipment and the minimum wage rising. 

“We know that’s not fair and that’s not right,” Charlie, who holds the fisheries portfolio for Lake Babine Nation, says.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada maintains its staff has regular communication with Lake Babine. It did not respond directly to the question of funding not increasing since 1992, but pointed to the 2017 budget that included $62.2 million annually to “review, renew and expand Indigenous programs,” and pointed to renewable funding opportunities like the B.C. Salmon Restoration and Innovation Fund, though such examples are not permanent funding. 

“The department acknowledges that despite these recent investments, many fisheries program budgets still face pressure due to inflation,” the statement to The Narwhal says. 

Preserving fish for future generations

Michell stands in her yard at a table covered in fish guts, surrounded by a team of washers and cutters rapidly preparing fresh fish. They speed through 200 fish in 120 minutes — earlier this year, Michell says her team cut 100 fish in 35 minutes.

“The fireweeds tell us when the salmon are coming,” 71-year-old Michell says. When the fireweed gets fuzzy, that’s when the salmon start changing, turning red — making the meat softer and not fit to eat.

Michell says sockeye took “forever to get here” this year. That means a smaller window to harvest before they turn red.

She has been cutting fish since she was eight years old. She runs fish camps every year for youth. She cuts fish rapidly and expertly as she talks.

“You never speak negative to the fish,” she says. She outlines the respectful protocols in place, like bringing remains back to the lake. “We have to follow protocol because we can live longer if we practice all these dos and dont’s.”

Elder Beverly Michell from Lake Babine Nation cutting fish
Elder Beverly Michell barely paused while processing salmon she’d received earlier that day, neatly cutting the heads off the fish one after the other. She’s passing her skills down to youth, including several who help out at her fish camp.

Michell grew up in the community of Old Fort. They had no car, no Ski-Doo — “just a homemade toboggan.”

“No running water, no generator. We had a garden and used to trade fish,” she says. “That was a good place. Better than where we are now.”

Michell was seven years old when the government forced everyone out of Old Fort so they would be closer to a school. “We still went back every weekend,” she says. Their new home at Pendleton Bay, about 150 kilometres away, was small as “a matchbox,” she says. They lived there between 1956 and 1967 before being forcibly moved again. The school there shut down, and her family wouldn’t get their $4 family allowance if they didn’t move closer to another school.

Despite the upheavals, Michell never stopped working with fish. In 1998, she began leading fish camps. Now, she plans to pass the reins to one of her grandchildren. She says she is the only one left in her community who knows how to set net under ice to catch fish — a skill she plans to teach, and has captured on video, so the skill can carry on.

Power says they prioritize teaching youth and single mothers — teaching them how to harvest in a healthy way, to “not only protect you, but the future sustenance of salmon.” 

Freshly processed salmon with a wasp hovering above

Many of these fish are distributed to people in need, like single parents, low-income homes, children in care and Elders. Fish are also distributed to off-reserve members in urban centres like Prince George, Vancouver and Kamloops — many who can’t afford to come back and harvest on their own.

These dozens of fish camps and smokehouses are essential for people’s food security through the winter. As of publication, Michell and her team were still working hard — still standing at that table — and have prepared more than 6,000 fish.

Community is feeling ‘rewards’ from its precedent-setting agreement with B.C. and Canada — with more hopes for the future

Abraham was up at 5 a.m. at his father-in-law’s cabin, and had good luck catching fish: he pulled in more than 120.

He says on the one hand, it is hard work, and he had a tough morning pulling nets. But from his perspective, thinking about his ancestors, it’s also “not work at all.”

“This was a must for them, you couldn’t just walk over to a grocery store and buy meat on a daily basis. So when I started thinking about that, I don’t look at it as work, I look at it as practicing my culture.”

“It fills my heart, fills my spirit, knowing that we can feed some families this year.”

The nation continues to encounter bureaucratic obstacles in trying to instill more conservation measures for salmon, but they hold great hope in the foundation agreement they signed with B.C. and Canada in 2020.

The agreement acknowledges Lake Babine has title outright. Not having to argue about title in court for decades helps keep the relationship more positive, Lindsay says, adding they have experienced “education, competence and respect” from the Skeena Regional Office. She says there is continuity of staff that allows relationship-building, and clear communication.

“We wouldn’t be able to do this work without them,” she says.

Lake Babine Nation Chief Murphy Abraham
Lake Babine Nation Chief Murphy Abraham says catching and processing fish is hard work, but he doesn’t think of it that way. “I look at it as practicing my culture.”

B.C. has committed to returning 20,000 hectares of land valued at about $150 million and contributed $50 million in funding to help Lake Babine implement the foundation agreement and build its capacity.

According to Lake Babine, Canada committed $50 million for implementing the agreement, while the nation hoped it would match B.C.’s funding. But the money has not been sent, and Lindsay says they have concerns whether Canada will support implementation long-term. They don’t want to spend the $50 million from the federal government — should it arrive — creating new jobs, only to run out in a few years and have to pull the plug on all the initiatives they planned.

The foundation agreement has a wide scope, including governance, education and economic development. Each section is complex. For example, the wildlife section introduces a wildlife advisory committee of 14 Lake Babine members. In addition to outlining research and habitat protection, the nation also signed a memorandum of understanding with the B.C. Conservation Officer Service, under this section. 

They say there’s a history of members being harassed by conservation officers and misled about their rights to harvest. The service will now provide Lake Babine information about its activities on Lake Babine territory, and will inform the nation how many people officers are stopping on the territory, and what proportion of them are Lake Babine people. Every new conservation officer is required to attend Lake Babine-led cultural training, which includes education about Indigenous Rights.

The nation established a system for the band to be alerted if a member is being charged for any harvesting infringements, so they can offer support. All of that took months of work — and is just one small part of the wildlife section.

Lindsay says the foundation agreement is “innovative” and “groundbreaking” — and at the same time, they still don’t know what it will look like going forward. 

Murphy is happy to see the funding from B.C. being put to good use, with the nation building two cultural centres in the communities Fort Babine and Tachet. They plan to hire more biologists and experts. They’ve had their forestry employees scouting around Babine Lake to clean up former camp spots that have grown over. This will allow more members to have the space to set up their own fish camps and smokehouses.

For Abraham, salmon were the bridge to reconnecting with his culture. He and his wife began to go to her father’s cabin and smokehouse and run fish camps through the band’s recreation department, “teaching the next generation how to harvest fish.” This summer they had three families, with 17 family members, participating.

He says they prioritize getting fish to people who can’t do it for themselves. Some fish goes to kids in care — an issue Murphy is passionate about, and connects to the importance of salmon. He’s a foster parent himself. As a councillor, he went to conferences and heard stories from Indigenous foster children saying even in loving homes, they felt “that big void,” wanting to connect with their people.

He and his wife have taken their foster children out to be part of fish camps. “It’s getting them back in touch with family, getting them back in touch with culture and language and tradition,” he says.

“Seeing their faces glow — that’s what it’s all about.”

The Narwhal’s series, Nourish, is made possible with support from the Real Estate Foundation of BC. As per our editorial independence policy, no foundation or outside organization has editorial input into our stories.

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