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DFO restricts Chinook salmon fishing on Birkenhead

Fish audits reveal lower counts in 2008

The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has placed a "no fishing for salmon" restriction on the Birkenhead River, lower Lillooet River and Lillooet Lake until Sept. 15, citing low salmon counts last year.

The Squamish-Lillooet Sport Fish Advisory Committee first made the recommendation to the DFO that they place the restriction on the migration route of Birkenhead River Chinook.

The fish travel north from the Fraser River in about January or February and then up through Harrison Lake, the Lillooet River and finally the Birkenhead at any time from about May or June. There they spawn in late August and September.

Figures from the DFO indicate that there were 1,259 Chinook in the Birkenhead in 2006; 1,968 in the river in 2007. Last year showed a sharp drop in the fish count - observers tallied a total 206.

Dave Brown, a Whistler realtor and member of the Squamish-Lillooet Sport Fish Advisory Committee, said the DFO can't risk losing even one Chinook salmon. That means even catch-and-release fishing, normally permitted on the river, should be restricted.

"Simply because they spend so much time in fresh water, you don't want them getting caught and then caught again," he said. "If you were to come up with the ultimate Chinook salmon for a sport fish variety, Birkenhead Chinook are that because they're very aggressive towards flies, lures, anything that you kind of throw at them."

Though fishing for Chinooks has been restricted, that doesn't mean you're not allowed to sport fish on any of the restricted rivers. You can still fish for species such as trout and Dolly Varden.

"The recommendation could have been to close the river entirely," Brown said. "We felt that that was taking way too many angling opportunities... for trout and Dolly Varden and also bull trout.

"So there's still angling opportunities for these trout, and there's cutthroat trout as well, so we wanted to make sure these opportunities were available as well."

Though the average fish count in the Birkenhead is around 500, Brown said in a news release that a "dramatic decline in escapement" has precipitated the recommendation to restrict fishing for Chinook.

"We just felt that although the impact is low and the mortality is low on sport fishing, we always want to allow for recreational fishing to take place whenever possible," he said. "This year we just thought it was such low returns that even if we just lost one fish, no one felt that it would be right to be fishing for them during this time."