Aboriginal fisheries on the lower Fraser River are "out of control" and vast amounts of salmon supposed to go strictly for food, social and ceremonial purposes are instead sold on the black market.
That's the assessment of Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) staff tabled in evidence this week at the Cohen Commission into the decline of Fraser sockeye.
DFO investigators estimated 97 per cent of lower Fraser sockeye harvested under aboriginal food fisheries are sold, according to one document summarizing internal department concerns after an April 2010 meeting.
Scott Coultish, who heads DFO's Intelligence and Investigation Services branch, defended the figure before the commission Tuesday, saying it reflects staff estimates.
That and other evidence filed at the inquiry gave fresh weight to long-running claims of widespread native poaching and illegal sale of salmon.
"The root cause of illegal harvest is the sale of that product," said the 2010 document.
A 2006 operational intelligence assessment by DFO's Special Investigations Unit warned illegal sales of First Nations-caught fish is widespread across B.C. via back door dealing to restaurants and fish shops as well as door-to-door sales.
"The FSC (food, social and ceremonial) First Nations fishery on the Lower Fraser River is largely out of control and should be considered in all contexts, a commercial fishery," the assessment said, warning DFO is "unable to effectively control the illegal sales."
Various methods and levels of sophistication allow First Nations-caught salmon to be laundered into regular commercial markets, it added.
The assessment called for more effort to identify and charge retail buyers in the Lower Mainland and said more resources are needed to step up enforcement.
The findings were in response to a 2005 probe by fishery officers who suspected large amounts of First Nations-caught sockeye was going into cold storage at outlets across the Lower Mainland for later illegal sale.
Project Ice Storm was an audit of 110 Lower Mainland fish plants that found 345,000 sockeye in storage as of September 2005.
That was the end of a season where low sockeye returns meant no commercial fishery was allowed, nor was any aboriginal economic opportunity fishing (a limited for-profit commercial fishery for First Nations.)
All the fish in the plants was therefore FSC fish and much of it seemed packaged for sale.
But the investigation ran out of funding, DFO officers never got proof any of the frozen salmon were sold and no prosecutions resulted, the inquiry was told.
Randy Nelson, DFO's director of conservation and protection in the Pacific region, said further budget cuts expected will likely continue to limit the department's ability to target illegal sales and poaching.
Although it's impossible to say how much illegal fishing happens, Nelson told the inquiry he believes it may account for hundreds of thousands of sockeye vanishing each year, but not millions.
Many people fish illegally, he said, not just First Nations.
Even when poachers are caught many never pay their fines.
There's more than $1 million in outstanding fines for illegal fishing in the Pacific region, according to an update tabled at the inquiry.
Sto:lo fisher advisor Ernie Crey, speaking outside the hearings, dismissed the allegation large amounts of sockeye are illegally sold by First Nations.
He said aboriginal people don't use traditional preservation methods as much and have increasingly turned to industrial freezers.
"It's not prohibited," Crey said. "We can do that if we choose, along with all other Canadians."
He said DFO wrongly assumed the fish in 2005 was destined for the black market.
"They don't have any direct evidence that's the case," he said.
B.C. Conservative party leader John Cummins said he feels vindicated by the evidence presented this week.
The longtime commercial fishermen was fined $200 in Surrey court Monday for his role in a 2002 protest fishery that tried to shame DFO into cracking down on aboriginal food fish sales.
"It just underscores what we have been protesting and saying all these years," Cummins said.
He said he doesn't blame First Nations for the entire downturn of Fraser sockeye, but he said they are part of the problem.
"It makes the management of the fishery so much more difficult for the department when they don't know how many are going upstream," Cummins said.
"The resource is at risk. If we don't do the right thing, we're going to lose it."
Cummins has not yet paid the latest $200 fine nor another one for $300 handed down last December for another fishing protest in 2001.
He said he hasn't yet decided whether he will pay.