Fraser River sockeye runs were overfished in 2014 by 1.4 million
“It was only due to dumb luck that the overfishing wasn’t extreme”
April 9, 2015 (Vancouver, BC) – Despite a large return of sockeye to the mouth of the Fraser River last year, the number of fish that made it to their spawning grounds fell short of spawning objectives by 19%. If Canadian and U.S. fishermen had caught all the fish allocated to them, the total number of spawners would have been nearly 3 million fish short of the official in-season targets set by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Pacific Salmon Commission- an error of 41%.
Fishery experts from the Watershed Watch Salmon Society say that DFO authorized aggressive fisheries, ignoring scientific advice from the Pacific Salmon Commission and real-world warning signs that the run was smaller than expected.
“Big catches were obviously the highest priority for our federal government, not prudent management,” said Aaron Hill, Executive Director at Watershed Watch and an Observer on the Fraser River Panel. “But what’s really shocking is the amount of overfishing that would have occurred if the fishermen had caught their full allocation, which they usually do. It would have been a disaster similar to the missing fish fiasco in 2009 that led to the $37 million Cohen Commission.”
The biggest shortfall–about 37% or 1.4 million fish–occurred on the later portion of the run and includes both the fabled Adams River run and the endangered Cultus Lake run. But if fishermen had caught their full allocation of late-run sockeye, the run would have fallen short of the spawning target by an astounding 65%. DFO failed to achieve the modest recovery goals in place for Cultus Lake sockeye, as well as for the endangered Interior Fraser River coho runs that migrate at the same time and are caught along with the sockeye.
“Last season could have produced good catches and continued the rebuilding of Fraser sockeye- but instead it was another setback” said Greg Taylor, a Fisheries Advisor to Watershed Watch and former fishing company executive. “Only dumb luck prevented 2014 from entering the long list of management failures on the Fraser, a list that has generated five inquiries since 1992.”
These new revelations come as a new and unprecedented warming event in the North Pacific Ocean continues to raise concerns for B.C. salmon, and as DFO is taking comments from the public on proposals to maintain the increased catch rates for Fraser sockeye in their official fishing plans for 2015. Watershed Watch is calling on British Columbians to voice any concerns they may have to federal managers and politicians, to help ensure more cautious management in 2015 and future years. Comments can be submitted here: http://www.watershed-watch.org/call-for-public-comments-on-2015-salmon-fishing-plan/
“Fraser sockeye and many other salmon runs are struggling in the face of a warming ocean, melting glaciers, pathogens from salmon farms, and disrupted ecosystems,” concluded Hill. “The last thing they need is a management ethic focused on catch rather than conservation.”
Aaron Hill, Executive Director, Watershed Watch Salmon Society 250-818-0054
Greg Taylor, Fisheries Advisor, Watershed Watch Salmon Society 604-970-0277
Jim Cooperman, President, Shuswap Environmental Action Society 250-319-4197
Ian Hinkle, Communications Manager, Watershed Watch Salmon Society 250-217-3933
The Fraser is British Columbia’s largest salmon bearing river and the Fraser River sockeye fishery exploits around 40 genetically distinct populations of sockeye salmon – more than in any other river in the world. While some of these populations are healthy and abundant, many others are depressed or endangered, according to Canada’s Wild Salmon Policy.
Management of the Fraser sockeye fishery has been plagued with scandal and controversy. The latest occurred in 2009 when 10 million fish were forecast to return, but only 1.4 million showed up, leading to the Cohen Commission, a 2-year, $37 million judicial inquiry. The Cohen Commission’s 1200-page final report provided 75 pragmatic recommendations for improving the management of wild Pacific salmon in British Columbia. Two and a half years later, most of Cohen’s recommendations have not been acted on by government.
In a dramatic reversal of fortunes, 29 million fish showed up in 2010, the largest return in a century. The 2014 runs were the offspring of the massive 2010 return, leading to high expectations.
The Fraser River sockeye fishery is managed in large part by the Fraser River Panel of the Pacific Salmon Commission, which is chaired by Canadian and US government fishery managers, but mostly made up of fishermen. During the fishing season, scientists at the Pacific Salmon Commission make recommendations to the Panel on the current run size, but the twice-weekly decisions on what run size and what precautionary management adjustments should be incorporated. However, decisions on the actual run and management adjustments to be used–which in turn determine the allowable catch–are made by the Panel. Throughout the 2014 sockeye run, the Panel routinely adopted higher run sizes and lower management adjustments than recommended by PSC scientists, effectively boosting the allowable catches. (Management adjustments are additional fish allowed to swim up the river to account for en-route mortality).
The total number of spawners in 2014 fell 19% short of the official in-season targets, a difference of 1.4 million fish.
It is estimated that 60% of the endangered Cultus Lake sockeye run was caught in the 2014 fishery, roughly 20% higher than the intended harvest rate. The recovery goal was 3152 successful spawners but according to the latest estimate, only 2594 of the endangered fish successfully spawned.
Summary of catches and spawners for Fraser River sockeye in 2014
(Source: Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Pacific Salmon Commission)
|Early summer runs
|Mid summer runs
|Late summer runs
|Total Fraser sockeye
|In-season spawning target
|Sockeye spawners counted
|Portion of total allocations not caught by fishermen
|Number of spawners if entire allocations had been caught
|Spawning shortfall relative to in-season target
|Spawning shortfall if all fish allocated to fishermen had been caught