VANCOUVER (CP) - Organized crime has infiltrated the black-market trade of salmon caught for aboriginal food and ceremonial purposes, apparently diverting it for sale on the open market, an inquiry into the Fraser River fishery has heard.
However, officials with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans say funding cuts mean there's not much they can do about sockeye being laundered commercially.
Scott Coultish, regional chief of the department's intelligence and investigation services, told the inquiry last week that significant organized criminal activity is involved in the handling of the salmon because of its value.
Coultish told lawyer Don Rosenbloom that a 2005 investigation called Project Ice Storm led officials to Vancouver-area fish plants where they found a large amount of sockeye meant for First Nations consumption, but lacked the resources to trace where it went from there.
He told the inquiry that in recent years, about 97 per cent of fish caught in the lower Fraser River and meant for consumption solely by aboriginals was sold on the market.
The department's investigation, some aspects of which involved the RCMP, also found that crab being shipped from Vancouver's airport to New York included about $1 million in marijuana concealed in packaging, Coultish said at the inquiry last week.
Investigators learned that people embroiled in various types of criminal activity are also involved with fish, he told Rosenbloom.
"It is a sad state of affairs where DFO believes that organized crime has infiltrated the fishery, yet they acknowledge they are incapable of enforcing the law," Rosenbloom said in an interview Saturday.
"The fishery is a public resource and the government of Canada should ensure that DFO's enforcement wing is aptly funded to ensure full enforcement of our fishery laws."
Rosenbloom represents a group of gillnetters and seiners at the ongoing judicial inquiry examining the decline of Fraser River sockeye.
Coultish said the sockeye found in the plants was vacuum-packed for sale when discovered at the plants, but the inability to follow its whereabouts could put the future of such investigations in jeopardy.
The plants don't take ownership of the fish but are simply used as storage facilities so it's not illegal for them to possess it, he said.
Gail Sparrow, former chief of the Musqueam band, said she wants the bounty of the Fraser River's sockeye to be shared among aboriginal people, but that wasn't the case at the reserve last summer during the biggest run in a quarter century.
She said the Fisheries Department should involve First Nations people more in establishing the fishery.
"If they break the law, we have to prosecute them," she said.
"We want justice, we want things done right. And when there's something that's a right-based fishery we want it done right. We don't want it abused."
Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs President Stewart Phillip accused Sparrow of sensationalism, saying he doesn't believe Sparrow's claims that aboriginal fishermen were involved in illegally selling sockeye while Musqueam band members were left with little fish last summer.
"She's known to make high-profile public statements," he said, adding the Fisheries Department can't prove where the fish from the plants ended up.
Ernie Crey, a fisheries adviser to the Sto:lo Tribal Council, criticized the Fisheries Department for starting an investigation it couldn't finish.
"My take on all of this is well, if you're the consummate professionals that you claim you are, why didn't you create a budget?" he said.
"Now the folks that are made to look bad are the aboriginal community because of your incompetence. If you're going to do an investigation, and they did it seven years ago, you're going to establish evidence that would meet any test in the courtroom.
"You've run out of money, so hello, you're incompetent."
Randy Nelson, director of conservation and protection, told the inquiry that Fraser River sockeye has become another form of currency for those selling it to make money illegally.
Up to 1,800 people owe fines of about $1 million for violations to the Fisheries Act, he told Rosenbloom.
"A million dollars is a lot of money but what's even more stunning is that 1,700 or 1,800 individuals who are known to have violated the Fisheries Act ... are walking away with immunity because DFO claims to lack the fiscal capacity to properly enforce," Rosenbloom said.
Mike Lapointe, who assesses in-season Fraser River sockeye as chief biologist with the Pacific Salmon Commission, said he couldn't comment directly on the illegal sale of fish.
"If it's true, it's sad, obviously, because folks who need that fish aren't getting it."