Climate emergency has forced gut-wrenching decisions
I sit here heartbroken. This week, as I put together my annual salmon forecast, the fisheries minister’s announced she intends to close—for the long-term—most of B.C.’s commercial salmon fisheries. It is a bold and courageous decision, made necessary by the cascading impacts of the climate emergency on salmon and the ecosystems they inhabit. But it is also a declaration of past failures: failure to implement our highly-regarded national policies; failure to manage fisheries sustainably; and failure to make the difficult decisions when it most counted.
Tragically, commercial fishers will pay the price for our collective failure to address climate change, to adapt forest, land-use and water management practices in recognition of climate change and cumulative impacts, and to manage fisheries with precaution and according to established national and international policies.
I began my career co-managing a fleet of 80+ Indigenous gillnetters. By mid-career, I was managing a culturally and socially diverse fleet of 250+ gillnetters and 80 seiners. My fishermen came from communities throughout B.C.; from isolated First Nations communities such as Gitwangak, Gitanyow, and Alert Bay; from historical coastal communities such as Sointula; and from fishing-oriented lower mainland communities such as Ladner and Steveston. They were Indigenous, Japanese, Croatian, Norwegian, Icelandic, and from about every other settler community. They were our history; who we were as a province, and what made us who we are today. Everyone worked together, side by side, to harvest and process the bounty of salmon we enjoyed. In many ways, they were the best of who we want to be today.
I feel the heavy burden of guilt and sorrow for having failed them.
The fisheries minister has promised to compensate fishers who want to leave the fishery through a licence retirement program. Since the minister has closed most of the fishery, the majority will likely want, and need, to get out. It is our obligation to make sure the compensation for fishers is robust and equitable. Their industry has been ravaged by the climate emergency and they require support to adjust.
Just as importantly, the resources for this compensation cannot come from the $647 million the minister promised for salmon conservation and restoration. We owe it to our salmon, and to these hard-working people, that every dollar of the $647 million is dedicated to recovering our salmon populations. The last series of licence retirements, ending in 1997, cost $460 million in 2021 dollars. Taking this money from the resources promised for salmon recovery would be pouring salt into our fishers’ wounds.
This 2021 salmon forecast may be my last one after some 35 years, for who needs forecasts if there are no fisheries? Although it captures why this bold action was necessary, please read closely. Our salmon are still out there, in streams throughout our province. Their numbers and diversity are a shadow of what they once were, but salmon are highly adaptable and given half a chance, they will recover. We owe it to our fishermen to see that they do.
2021 B.C. salmon update and forecast
Nass River sockeye are forecast to return below average. Very early indications are that the run is below forecast. This fishery has been closed as part of the minister’s announcement.
Skeena River sockeye are expected to also be below average, but at a level that will support some mixed-stock gillnet and seine fisheries. (This fishery is one of the few in the province that will remain open). It is much too early in the return to provide a projection. The forecast is dependent on a strong five-year-old return as the four-year-old return is expected to be weak.
Nass pink returns are expected to be poor, but this is a fishery where we could have a surprise. (It is another fishery which will remain open). Alaskan managers are expecting a better year for Southeast Alaskan pinks based on fry out-migration surveys, and our far north B.C. pink streams often follow along. In addition, cooler ocean temperatures often lead B.C. salmon to migrate more directly to their spawning areas, avoiding some of the interception fisheries in Alaska. This can benefit other northern B.C. species as well. Unfortunately, Nass pinks co-migrate with northern chum, Chinook, coho, steelhead, and sockeye, all expected to be weak relative to their management objectives. While these species must be discarded alive, which can be a successful strategy using seine gear if the fishery is well-monitored, DFO does not require the same level of independent compliance monitoring of these fisheries as it does for groundfish, halibut and other important B.C. fisheries.
Skeena pinks have collapsed over the past couple of decades and are expected to have a very poor return. The same with Skeena chums.
Nass Chinook and coho are expected to return at lower than desired levels.
Skeena Chinook have declined—like so many other chinook populations from California through to Alaska—to where they are expected to return at critically low levels. Early indications suggest things might actually be worse than forecast. An active marine guide/outfitter mixed-stock fishery based out of Prince Rupert remains open. The in-river Chinook fishery enjoyed by locals is likely to be closed. Skeena coho returns are forecast to be poor. (After FSC, 95 per cent of B.C.’s Chinook and coho are allocated to the recreational fishery).
Very high water levels in both the Nass and Skeena, and likely other rivers around the province, caused by the recent unprecedented heatwave, are making it difficult to estimate numbers of returning fish.
Area 6 pink salmon (Douglas Channel and its coastal approaches) are forecast to return below average. This population may see a better return if productivity is better than projected and they manage to avoid Alaskan interception fisheries. However, good fishing for Area 6 pinks would not be good news for the depressed wild chum and other stocks that co-migrate with the pinks and get caught as bycatch. This is another fishery that escaped the closure of most other B.C. commercial fisheries. Managers and fishers need to be aware that if they don’t improve the compliance monitoring in this fishery, it too will be in jeopardy.
Central Coast wild chum returns are generally expected to be poor. Enhanced chum returns from the Snootli Hatchery in Area 8 (Bella Coola) are expected to be average. Production of these hatchery chum complicated management because mixed-stock fisheries in Area 8 often over-harvested wild chums and under-harvested the enhanced chums. This fishery had a significant bearing on B.C.’s loss of Marine Stewardship Council eco-certification for our salmon fisheries. This fishery is now closed.
West coast of Vancouver Island (WCVI) may be interesting this year. A low to average sockeye return is forecast for Barkley Sound allowing for some fishing by all sectors and gear types. But a hot dry summer may derail the fishing season as warm water can lead to high pre-spawn mortalities; something managers will have to consider. Enhanced chums could have supported fisheries in several areas in the fall, some of which may have been quite productive. But these fisheries were part of the closure announcement. Enhanced Chinook will also likely support directed fisheries adjacent to hatcheries. Wild WCVI chinook populations are classified as threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC; a federally mandated science body).
East Coast of Vancouver Island (ECVI) fisheries are dominated by hatchery production. Many wild populations—other than pinks—are classified as endangered or threatened. There should be average returns of enhanced chums to most major systems. Other than the limited Johnstone Strait mixed-stock fishery, these tend to be harvested in near-terminal commercial fisheries. These fisheries are now closed. Enhanced ECVI chinook, on the other hand, are harvested along with endangered ECVI chinook populations in mixed-stock recreational fisheries throughout the Strait of Georgia. These fisheries, being recreational, remain open. There should be some good recreational pink fishing opportunities in the southern portions of the ECVI. The fascinating outlier to most other ECVI streams producing wild salmon is the Cowichan River. It should continue to see average returns of wild chums, chinook, and even steelhead in 2021. This deserves an article unto itself as its success may point the way towards how we might conserve and recover salmon in the future.
Fraser River sockeye are divided into four management groups: Early Stuart, Early Summer, Summer, and Late. Within each management group are numerous distinct populations with divergent productivity and run-timing. And the migration timing of the four management groups overlap each other. It’s like an immense jigsaw puzzle where none of the pieces quite fit with one another. Recent environmental trends have reduced productivity and increased forecast uncertainty for most component populations and the Big Bar slide still hovers large over this year’s return. Given the inherent management complexity, and that several populations have been declared endangered, it is little wonder that this commercial fishery has been closed for all gear types (gillnet, seine, troll), including for First Nations. The wonder is that we were arrogant enough, at least in recent times when productivity was low and risk was high, to think it was ever possible to mount sustainable mixed-stock fisheries on Fraser sockeye.
Fraser pink salmon are forecast to return at low levels in 2021. There is the potential for the return to be better than predicted. This is because if there is any improvement in marine conditions, as many indicators suggest, it is pink salmon—which have a two-year life cycle—that will show the benefits first. Further, the 2021 pink forecast has little good data to support it. Because of COVID, the fry out-migration in 2020 was not monitored, and the 2019 escapements were poorly assessed. This fishery is now closed to all commercial gear types.
Fraser chums returning this fall are forecast to return below their management objective. The forecast is based on the poor 2017 escapements and continued poor environmental conditions for salmon generally. This fishery was part of the closure announcement.
Fraser Chinook are grouped into Fraser 4-2s, Spring and Summer 5-2s, Fraser 4-1s and Fall 4-1s. The difference is Chinook designated with a ‘2’ spend their first year after hatching in freshwater before migrating to the ocean. The forecast for 4-2s and 5-2s is very poor. The 4-2 migration peaks in June in the Fraser River. The 5-2 migration peaks in late July. However, there is considerable overlap because, similar to Fraser sockeye, each of these stock groupings consists of multiple component populations with varied productivity and migration timing. Hence, you will find 4-2 and 5-2 Fraser Chinook both returning between March and mid-August. Both stock groupings are classified as endangered by COSEWIC. These fish are encountered in mixed-stock marine recreational fisheries from southwest Vancouver Island seaward of Barkley Sound through to the Fraser River, very limited in-river First Nations Treaty and Food fisheries, and by IUU (Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated) fisheries in the Fraser River. There is next to no commercial harvest of these populations because they tend to migrate directly in from the Pacific Ocean through the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The forecast for these stock groupings is very poor. Current assessments suggest they are returning even less than forecast. Many of these populations are also impacted by the Big Bar slide. Recreational fisheries impacting these populations continue.
Fraser 4-1 Chinook are forecast to be abundant and will likely support commercial, First Nations, and recreational fisheries from the Alaska border through to their spawning grounds in and around the Thompson and Shuswap Rivers and their tributaries. Their migration timing is from mid-July to mid-September. These fish spawn in rivers that enter the Fraser below the Big Bar slide and therefore remain unaffected by it.
Fraser Fall 4-1s are the only Fraser Chinook with a biologically-based escapement goal (the number of fish required to make it back to the spawning grounds). Unlike Alaska, or the southern states, DFO does not have biologically-based escapement goals for most salmon populations. Alaskan managers are mandated by the state’s constitution to ensure escapement goals are achieved for salmon returning to Alaskan rivers. Canada does not employ the same rigour. The reason Fraser Fall 4-1s have an escapement goal is that they are managed by the Pacific Salmon Treaty between Canada and the U.S. Fraser Fall 4-1s have not achieved their escapement goal for a decade and Canada is under considerable pressure to address its failure on the issue. These Chinook are important contributors to the marine mixed-stock recreational and First Nations food and treaty fisheries. They are not harvested by commercial fisheries and are therefore not included in the commercial closures announced by the minister. Fall 4-1s migrate into the Fraser River from mid-August to mid-November, peaking in late September through early October. As these populations spawn in the lower Fraser River and its tributaries, they are not impacted by the Big Bar slide.
Interior Fraser coho are classified as threatened. They return from late August through September and are therefore vulnerable to being encountered in any mixed-stock recreational or commercial fishery along their migratory path. Canadian total mortalities are limited to 3 per cent but monitoring and assessments are poor. There is limited data on lower Fraser coho but their status is of growing concern for First Nations in the area.
Steelhead returning to the Thomson and Chilcotin Rivers are past being endangered. They are on the cusp of being extirpated. DFO managers have suppressed scientific advice on commercial fishery impacts on steelhead. All fisheries that may have indirectly killed Thompson steelhead were closed by the minister’s announcement.