In preparing my review of 2021 salmon returns to date, I looked back upon my pre-season forecast and saw that I wasn’t far off on my predictions of actual returns. However, I was way off base in expecting DFO fisheries managers to follow through on the minister’s commitment to close commercial fisheries. I even wrote it might be my last year of providing predictions, “for who needs forecasts if there are no fisheries?”
The minister committed to close 79 fisheries on June 29, 2021. Seven days later, DFO announced only 13 would be closed, and that it was uncertain if there would be any further closures, or even if the 13 would stay closed. One of the key fisheries the minister said would be closed in 2021 was Fraser River pink salmon, which encounters critically-endangered steelhead and endangered and threatened sockeye and coho populations. However, in direct contravention of the minister’s commitment, without consulting anyone but the commercial industry, DFO opened several fisheries targeting Fraser pink salmon in September.
DFO’s actions are bad news for both salmon and salmon fishers. By not following through with the promised closures, the recovery the minister promised isn’t likely to happen. For fishers, because the minister tied the promised closures to harvest transformation and compensation, without the closures, neither is likely to happen.
So, unfortunately, it seems I may not be out of a job after all. And for DFO managers, it will be business as usual.
Fraser pinks were one of the few salmon populations that returned well above forecast, but only at about 70 per cent of their long term average. Most other salmon runs returned around, or maybe slightly above, their pre-season forecasts. But none of the pre-season forecasts promised any significant targeted commercial fisheries, except for Somass sockeye off the west coast of Vancouver Island and troll fisheries for pink, coho, and Chinook north and west of Haida Gwaii.
It is too early to say much about Fraser sockeye. The returns for the four major run-timing groups were all slightly better than their very poor forecasts and none supported fisheries. Sadly, the warm water they faced migrating up the Fraser this summer is expected to compromise their spawning success, but we won’t have the final results for several months.
Nass sockeye returned slightly better than pre-season expectations. 318,000 were forecast to return to Canada compared to about 400,000 that are estimated to have returned. Both are much lower than the long-term average of 609,000. The minister’s closure of the planned early commercial fisheries was helpful in ensuring there were sufficient escapements in 2021.
In the North, Skeena sockeye came in at near forecast. I had predicted some mixed-stock gillnet and seine fisheries, but very high Alaskan interceptions of Skeena and Nass sockeye (and likely most other species) meant that any benefit of increased production accrued to Alaskan, and not B.C., fishermen.
Additionally, 2021 saw a continuation of a recent trend of later timing for Skeena sockeye. This means that the Pacific Salmon Treaty restrictions on Alaskan interceptions of Skeena sockeye before the end of July are providing less protection for Nass and Skeena sockeye. That the treaty renewal was only concluded in 2019 illustrates how the pace and unpredictability of climate change is outstripping our ability to accommodate it.
Skeena chinook returns were again poor. Their decline over the past four years is consistent with most other North American chinook populations. The poor returns resulted in considerable controversy in the watershed as DFO shut down in-river recreational fisheries for locals due to conservation concerns, while leaving marine guide-outfitter operations open.
Skeena steelhead had their worst return on record. The 2021 run was recognized early on as being in the Province of B.C.’s ‘Extreme Conservation Concern Zone’. This again created considerable controversy between those who argued recreational fisheries should be closed and the local guide/outfitter sector who argued against closing the fishery. The Province dragged their feet until late in the season, finally closing the Skeena to steelhead angling on October 12.
In my forecast, I said that if there were decent pink salmon returns in the North, we would likely see them in Area 6 (Douglas Channel and its coastal approaches). Unfortunately, pink salmon returns to Area 6 were abysmal, maybe some of the worst on record, although some improvement was seen later in the season.
The other incorrect prediction I made was about east coast Vancouver Island chums. I expected average returns, but at this time the returns look to be very poor. Commercial fishermen are being told by DFO that fisheries are unlikely as returns are not expected to achieve escapement targets. Commercial fishermen are arguing that if there is a conservation concern, all fisheries, including recreational fisheries should be closed. They have a point.
Fraser River Chinooks returned as forecast with the early endangered populations returning at very low abundances and the summer runs showing some strength.
Some recent media stories claimed that summer Chinook abundance in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Salish Sea undermines the contention that poor Chinook returns are threatening Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) populations, but these stories have irresponsibly misinterpreted the study results. The study actually confirms what we already knew: there is an abundance of U.S. hatchery and Fraser summer Chinook in the Salish Sea from mid-July through August.
According to respected whale researchers, the collapse of Fraser spring-type Chinook returning from March through June is compromising the survival of the Southern Resident Killer Whales. Test fishing indicates these endangered Chinook populations show no sign of recovery in 2021.
Endangered Thompson and Chilcotin steelhead are, according to the Province, returning at levels that confirm their ‘critically endangered’ status. As Fraser River chum returns look bleak there are unlikely to be any commercial chum fisheries on the Fraser that would intercept steelhead. FSC gillnet fisheries may begin opening as of October 23rd. Recreational fishing for all species of salmon will remain closed.
In conclusion, this summer demonstrates once again the failure of the provincial and federal governments to do anything meaningful for salmon and salmon recovery in the face of the cumulative abuses salmon have suffered at their hands, and address the accelerating impacts of the climate emergency on salmon habitats and ecosystems.
But I would fail both salmon and the reader to leave it at that. There is a good news story that shines a light on a possible pathway forward. Cowichan Chinook appear to be recovering with another good return this year. Most importantly, this recovery is driven by wild Chinook, which have had much higher survival than hatchery-produced Chinook. The strong Cowichan return challenges claims about seal predation threatening wild salmon, as the area surrounding the Cowichan estuary has an abundance of pinnipeds.
What is happening on the Cowichan Watershed that is not happening elsewhere? Some unique aspects in the management of this watershed that may be driving the recovery are:
- local governance;
- First Nations, stakeholders, communities, and local industry working collaboratively to manage the watershed;
- habitat restoration in the lower river and estuary;
- good monitoring and research activities supported by the involved parties; and
- people coming together to coerce the provincial and federal governments into becoming part of the solution, instead of the problem.
I will provide a full recap of 2021 salmon returns once spawning reports begin to become available starting in early December.