As salmon runs in British Columbia hit record lows, commercial fisheries along the Alaska panhandle are catching a growing share of salmon bound for B.C. rivers, according to a new technical report, commissioned by Watershed Watch Salmon Society and SkeenaWild Conservation Trust.
Many of B.C.’s largest salmon runs pass through Alaskan waters on their way home to spawn in Canadian rivers. While commercial fishing was nearly non-existent in B.C. last summer, Alaskan fleets just across the border logged over 3,000 boat-days and harvested almost 800,000 sockeye (most of which were of Canadian origin). In addition to sockeye, tens of thousands of Canadian Chinook and coho were also harvested, as well as large but unknown numbers of co-migrating Canadian pink, chum, and steelhead, many of which come from threatened and endangered populations.
The report also highlights the potentially severe impacts of Alaskan harvest on endangered salmon and steelhead populations, and gaps in Alaskan catch monitoring and assessment that prevent responsible management of the fisheries.
“We knew the Alaskans were intercepting a lot of B.C. salmon,” said Greg Knox of SkeenaWild, “but the numbers in this report are staggering. I’m also appalled at their failure to report their bycatch of non-target species, which Canadian fishers are required to do.”
B.C. salmon numbers have hit record lows in recent years, prompting former federal fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan to close 60 per cent of B.C.’s commercial salmon fisheries in June, 2021. She also announced a major licence buyback program as part of Canada’s $647 million Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative to rebuild depleted stocks. Indigenous and recreational fisheries have also had unprecedented closures in B.C.
Much of the interception of Canadian-bound salmon takes place in Alaska’s District 104, on the outer coast of the Alaska panhandle, where local rivers do not support significant salmon populations. Nearly all the salmon and steelhead caught in District 104 are bound for streams in Canada, elsewhere in Southeast Alaska, or other US states such as Washington and Oregon.
“Canada eliminated interception net fisheries similar to the District 104 fishery beginning in the early 1990s because of the risk they posed to non-target stocks,” said Greg Taylor, fisheries advisor to Watershed Watch and SkeenaWild. “It is difficult to monitor and control the impacts of large mixed-stock fisheries on smaller non-target salmon populations, which is why Alaskan managers avoid similar fisheries elsewhere in the state where their own salmon might be put at risk.”
“Alaskan fisheries are now the biggest harvesters of a growing number of depleted Canadian salmon populations,” said Aaron Hill, executive director of Watershed Watch Salmon Society.
“Canadian fishers and taxpayers are making incredible sacrifices to protect and rebuild our salmon runs, while the Alaskan interception fishery continues unchecked. It is irresponsible of both countries to continue to allow this.”
“The Pacific Salmon Treaty will not be renewed until 2028, and history suggests Canada and the United States will likely come away from the negotiations with only incremental improvements,” said Misty MacDuffee of Raincoast Conservation Foundation.
“The Pacific Salmon Treaty has failed to protect our salmon and our fishers and we can’t wait until 2028 to fix it,” said Hill. “The governments of Canada and B.C. need to stand up right now and do something about this Alaskan plunder.”
Knox, Taylor, Hill and MacDuffee argue that Alaska could close the worst of its interception fisheries, and reduce the impact of others, by locating its fisheries closer to its own streams, and still sustainably harvest its own salmon.
This issue has garnered substantial media coverage. Here are a few top stories:
Alaskan fishers intercepting B.C. salmon at ‘jarring’ rate, Steffan Labbe, Delta Optimist, Jan 11, 2022
New Study Finds Alaska Responsible for Intercepting Countless Canadian-bound Salmon, Jeff Blagden, CFNR, Jan.11, 2022
Alaskans intercepting a lot of BC salmon: study, Nelson Bennett, Business Intelligence for B.C., Jan 11, 2022
Alaskan commercial fishery ‘plundering’ threatened B.C. salmon, Rochelle Baker, Canada’s National Observer, Jan 12, 2022
Alaska Plunders BC Bound Salmon While Our Fleet Sits Idle. Van Isle News, Jan 13, 2022
B.C. First Nation ‘outraged’ over Alaskan salmon interceptions, Pique Magazine, Stefan Labbe, Jan 14, 2022
Tsilhqot’in Nation Calls For Immediate Review Of The Pacific Salmon Treaty, My Cariboo Now, Pat Matthews, Jan 14, 2022
Alaskan fisheries intercepting large numbers of North Coast salmon, says report, CFTKTV, Joshua Azizi, Jan 14, 2022
Tŝilhqot’in government ‘outraged’ by Alaskan commercial harvest of salmon bound for B.C. Elizabeth McSheffrey, Global News, Jan 14, 2022
Report on Alaskan fisheries’ impacts on B.C. salmon alarms First Nation, conservation groups, CBC, Liam Britten, Jan 15, 2022
Report on impacts of Alaskan fisheries on British Columbia salmon alarms First Nation, conservation groups, Naomi Parham, Breaking Updates, Jan 16, 2022
Treaty failing to protect North Coast, B.C. salmon from Alaskan commercial fisheries: report, CTV News, Norman Galimski, Jan 17, 2022
Alaska harvests millions of salmon bound for B.C. and North Coast, Terrace Standard, K-J Millar/ Norman Galimski, Jan 17, 2022
Tŝilhqot’in Nation Calls for Review of Pacific Salmon Treaty Following Alaskan Interception Report Jeff Blagden, CFNR Network, Jan 17, 2022
New report suggests Alaskan fisheries are overharvesting plummeting B.C. salmon stocks Melissa Renwick, Toronto Star, Jan 20, 2022
Interior Fraser steelhead face extinction, warn B.C. fishing, conservation groups, Canadian Press, Jan 26. 2022
Skeena River First Nations outraged by Alaskan fisheries interception of salmon The Northern View, Binny Paul, Jan 26, 2022
Three First Nations demand action following report on Alaskan interception of B.C. salmon CFTK-TV, Joshua Azizi, Jan 27, 2022
Three local First Nations urge for meeting on Alaskan fishing after new report My Bulkley Lake Now, Lindsay Newman, Jan 28, 2022
U.S. fisheries hindering B.C.’s ability to rebuild struggling salmon stocks: advocates CTV News, Feb 16, 2022, Brenna Owen
As someone who fishes steelhead in B.C. I have seen and experienced significant declines over the past few years. B.C. fisheries have closed or reduced seasons for commercial take, but the numbers have continued to drop. Something is not right, and it now appears the commercial take in S.E. Alaska is the problem. More controls are needed, and better monitoring as well. It’s well past time for changes. It must happen this year, 2022, before it’s too late.