Our fisheries advisor, Greg Taylor, has worked in the B.C. seafood industry for over 30 years. Every year, Greg makes an early season forecast for salmon returns. (Read Greg’s early 2022 season forecast. ) Now we are midway through the season, we checked in with Greg to see what he thought about how the season is going.
WWSS: How are the salmon returns comparing with your early season outlook?
Greg: Not too bad, if I remember correctly. I believe I suggested we would have a pretty good sockeye return. And it’s better than I forecast. But it was a relatively easy guess. There were a number of indicators suggesting it would be a good sockeye year, other than maybe for the Fraser.
I always try to be a bit cautious in my predictions, so let’s say I am pleasantly unsurprised by the number of sockeye returning to streams all over North America, other than in the Fraser.
Chum salmon are looking fairly poor to date. There’s not a lot of information on wild chums anywhere, but what information we do have doesn’t look great, especially in the central coast area. And it’s much too early to say anything about chums to the south coast as they return in the fall.
Unfortunately, except for a bit of a bloom of pink salmon in the south coast mainland inlets and Campbell River, the pink return has been poor, particularly on the North coast. So that is disappointing, but not surprising, considering the continuing aggressive Alaskan campaign to harvest our fish.
WWSS: That’s having a lot of impact on pink salmon as well as Chinook?
Greg: Oh, yes, And some ways more so, especially on the north and central coast. Even though Alaska has had a very poor pink return, in district 104, they are hammering pinks bound for BC rivers. So that is having an impact on our pinks and chums throughout the north and central coast.
WWSS: How good have the sockeye returns been in B.C.?
Greg: Other than the Fraser, which we will get to later, they have been excellent, generating much better than expected fishing opportunities in the Skeena Watershed and Barkley Sound. The Skeena sockeye return is over double the pre-season forecast, but due to the declining number of boats, age of the participants, new regulations to protect at-risk populations, and disappearing processing infrastructure, only maybe 45 per cent of the commercial allocation will be caught.
There are important selective inland First Nations commercial fisheries ongoing in the Skeena. But unlike in Washington state where the Tribes receive 50 per cent of the commercial allocation, Skeena First Nations are only allocated 5 per cent of the commercial catch. And this based on what the fleet catches, not the commercial catch available.
There will be a large surplus to spawning requirements (known-stock) fishery in Babine Lake adjacent to the spawning channels this year that will be operated by a company I am involved with, and is owned by the Lake Babine Nation: Talok Fisheries. Talok being ‘sockeye’ in the Carrier language.
WWSS: With all of the sockeye fishing happening, how concerned are you about bycatch of other species?
Greg: Bycatch is definitely a problem. Much of the commercial and Indigenous food fishing is still being done with gillnets, which are not selective. So even if non-target species like steelhead and chums are discarded for conservation purposes, many or most of them will not survive. This does not include the bycatch which is caught and drops out of the gillnet to die later or is eaten by predators.
That said, the commercial fleet is smaller now than it ever has been, so that’s helping to limit the impacts on steelhead and other species. Ideally, we would get to a place where all fisheries are using selective gear with robust third-party compliance monitoring in place, to make sure the impact of any fishery on non-target species is minimal.
That would allow us to fish hard when we get strong returns like we are this year with sockeye, while still supporting rebuilding for endangered runs.
WWSS: How about our Chinook fishery?
Greg: The recreational fishery continues strong on hatchery fish, but many of our wild Chinook populations continue to struggle and are therefore impacted by the large, poorly monitored, recreational fishery throughout BC. So, while it’s a successful fishery in terms of catch, its impact on wild populations is a concern.
When I speak of poor monitoring, I will provide just one concrete example. Most large fisheries require robust genetic stock information on the in-season catch to identify and protect stocks of concern. We are still waiting for genetic stock information from the 2021 recreational fishery, almost 12 months after the conclusion of the fishery. And this fishery is significant because the recreational sector has been awarded 95 per cent of the total recreational and commercial catch of Chinook.
WWSS: What do we know so far about the Fraser?
Greg: In the Fraser, we have four run timing groups: Early Stuart, Early Summers, Summers, and Lates. We know the Early Stuart sockeye came in really well, much better than forecast. That was really good news to start the season off with. And there are indications many made it through the Big Bar slide, after a significant delay. This is good news. But we have to wait to see how many successfully spawn. But Early Summers are nowhere near meeting their forecast levels. And it’s too early to say anything definitive about the Summers or Lates, but test fishing does not look good. I don’t think there’s much chance of the Fraser achieving the kind of returns that have been seen elsewhere in North America.
WWSS: What does that mean for fishing on the Fraser this summer?
Greg: Within those four run timing groups on the Fraser, you’ve got runs of varying productivity from endangered to abundant. Fishing will be problematic because you have to get those Early Summers through the system before you start fisheries on Summers and Lates, which include the historically large Adams and Shuswap runs, if indeed there’s enough fish for that. So you have two problems. First, there won’t be as many fish as people hoped. And second, what fisheries do occur will be constrained by concerns over endangered sockeye stocks such as Cultus, and later, in early September, by concerns for coho and then Thompson steelhead.
There may be significant opportunities for significant known-stock fisheries on the Fraser this year as well. These sockeye are not caught in marine mixed-stock fisheries in order that stocks and species of concern might be protected. River Select is a First Nations company involved in buying, processing, and marketing these sockeye.
Known-stock fisheries on the Nass, Skeena, Barkley, Fraser, and Osoyoos are recreating fisheries eliminated by colonial decree in the early 1900s. Although still limited, they are slowly growing as more enlightened fisheries management takes hold. These fisheries are of increasing social, cultural, and economic importance to First Nations throughout the province.
WWSS: Set against the sockeye runs in the rest of North America, why is the Fraser faring so much worse?
Greg: Most observers believe the larger returns for most sockeye populations from Bristol Bay, north of the Aleutians, through to the Columbia, were caused by two years of cooler waters in the north Pacific. So why didn’t Fraser sockeye receive the same benefit? One key factor that’s unique to Fraser populations is their migration routes through the Salish Sea. They face a range of challenges including marine traffic, pollution, and fish farms. Yes, it really raises a lot of questions and we should focus more research into this issue.
WWSS: I think what people want to know is, with the exception of the Fraser, why are there such big sockeye returns this year? Have fishing closures worked? Does it mean the problems have gone away?
Greg: I think it’s mother nature. Most of the benefits we’ve seen are not related to fishing, but to productivity in the marine habitat. Do you remember how wet , damp and cool it was this spring? It was the same for the North Pacific. Salmon thrive in those kinds of conditions. So we’ve seen some very good ocean conditions for sockeye salmon and hopefully that will continue as long as the North Pacific stays cool. And with luck, we will see similar benefits for pink, chum, and coho salmon returning in 2023. However, with climate change, we could see a flip back to a series of warm water years, in which case we’ll go from a year of bounty to terrible returns again. That’s why, even though we’re seeing lots of fish in 2022, we can’t get carried away by it. We need those fish on the spawning grounds, especially for the populations that haven’t had sufficient spawners in the past. We need to build up their spawners. We need to build up the resilience of all salmon populations as much as possible. It is this resilience, along with protecting and rebuilding their freshwater habitats, that will allow them to survive the bad years, and rebound again in more favourable ones.
We should enjoy the bounty, but we should not all of a sudden think that this has changed and it’s gonna change for all time.
WWSS: After some pretty devastating years, to enjoy a year of bounty like this, what do you think it shows us about salmon?
Greg: Well first off, I think it shows just how resilient salmon really are. And how, given the right conditions, they have an incredible capacity to bounce back.
But it also speaks to the absolutely critical importance of maintaining freshwater and marine habitats. That’s where that resilience will be maintained. And that’s where we should focus our investments, our time and our concerns. That will be what saves our fish so we can truly enjoy the miraculous bounty of salmon and what it brings to us.