By Greg Taylor, Senior Fisheries Advisor
As anticipated, 2017 is proving to be a difficult year for BC’s wild salmon. Sockeye, chinook, and steelhead that entered the ocean in 2015 endured an inhospitable marine environment. Two years later, those that survived are migrating home through BC’s coastal waters, and into our rivers and streams.
Pacific Ocean temperatures in 2015 were much warmer than average, attracting competitors and predators from southern waters, and reducing the quantity and quality of prey for salmon. Making matters worse, BC’s wild salmon are being forced to share their diminished food supply with a record number of salmon being released from hatcheries in Alaska, Russia, and Japan.
Below is a summary of salmon returns and fisheries, ordered from north to south. You can find the fishery, or area, of interest to you by scrolling through.
If you want a summary of the summary, it is captured by a 50-year veteran of the commercial fishing industry, who wearily told me the other day, “it is the worst year for salmon that I have ever seen.”
After the summary of salmon returns you’ll find a description of the management, enforcement, and monitoring issues that continue to challenge our salmon.
A key finding is that DFO, in the face of accumulating evidence of poor coastwide returns and escapements, is keeping fisheries open, knowing that many populations are being overfished.
And at the end you will find some better news, sort of.
Overview of Fisheries and Returns
Northern and Central Coast
North Coast Troll
The north coast troll fishery for chinook closed August 4th having caught 84% of its Total Allowable Catch (TAC) of 108,500 fish. The coho fishery continues strong, with above average catches, reaching a total of about 265,000 coho as of early August.
North Coast Recreational Fisheries
The chinook and coho fishery around Haida Gwaii continues, with a reported catch to the end of June of 13,000 chinook. There is no estimate of the number of chinook discarded. This is a mixed-stock fishery. Fish caught in this fishery are heading to streams throughout BC and the Pacific Northwest USA.
While recreational fishing in freshwater was severely curtailed in response to record low sockeye returns, fishing pressure hit a new high again this year in the marine recreational fishery near the mouths of the Skeena and Nass Rivers (Areas 3 and 4). The chinook catch of around 5,000, and the coho catch of 2,000, are both below average. In other words, more fishermen were chasing fewer fish.
North and Central Coast Net fisheries and returns
Nass River and Portland Canal
The Nass sockeye return to Canada was predicted to be around 450,000. Current estimates peg it at around 270,000. Nass chinook are returning at about 25% of average. Steelhead are about 50% of the number usually seen to date, while the coho return is well above average.
Commercial gillnetters near the mouth of the Nass River (Area 3) caught around 34,000 sockeye up to July 3rd, when the fishery was closed. The fishery remains closed due to a poor return of Nass River sockeye.
Seines in Area 3 had an early start to their pink fishery and were allowed to retain chum salmon—of mostly Alaskan hatchery origin—early in the season. Later in the season, seine crews were required to discard sockeye and chum in order to protect BC-bound fish.
The pink catch has been modest, with about 600,000 pinks landed. Fishermen report they have discarded around 17,000 sockeye, and 11,000 chum.
Pink and chum populations in Area 3 may have been overfished. DFO reports that recent stream surveys revealed below average to poor numbers of pink and chum and DFO has now closed all fishing in the area.
Skeena River and coastal approach waters
There have been no commercial fisheries in Area 4 (the area adjacent to the mouth of the Skeena River) due to the very poor return of Skeena sockeye.
The recent average Skeena sockeye return to Canada (not accounting for Alaskan catches) is in excess of 2 million fish. This year, it was predicted to be only 500,000.
Skeena First Nations have always been able to begin fishing for food once the return exceeds 400,000. This year, in order to increase protections for wild Skeena sockeye (over 80% of Skeena sockeye are now from a single population, produced in artificial spawning channels in Babine Lake), Skeena First Nations worked with DFO to increase the trigger for when they can begin fishing sockeye for food, to 625,000.
The sockeye return is now predicted to be slightly better, around 750,000. This recent increase over the pre-season prediction appears to be driven by a stronger than excepted return of 5 year-old sockeye (in a typical year, most Skeena sockeye are 4 year-olds). Skeena First Nations are now permitted to keep some sockeye for food, social, and ceremonial (FSC) purposes, while the recreational sockeye fishery remains closed.
Skeena chinook are returning in very low numbers: about 20% of the average returns seen between 2000 and 2016. This continues a disturbing declining trend in abundance seen over the last three or four years. The Skeena appears to be following a declining trend in chinook abundance first seen in southern systems. This year’s return appears to be half as strong as its brood year. The recreational chinook fishery on the Skeena was closed for several weeks this summer, something that has never happened before.
Skeena steelhead are also returning at low levels—about half of the long-term average—according to early test fishing results.
Central Coast: Great Bear Rainforest to the top of Vancouver Island
There has been an ongoing gillnet fishery on the inside portions of Area 6 (Douglas Channel, near Kitimat). This year’s management of this fishery is unprecedented. These fisheries have, in the past, occurred only when there was an identified surplus of Kitimat River hatchery chum. This year, maybe to provide the local gillnet fleet an outlet because of the absence of fishing opportunities in the Nass and Skeena, it was opened early, before any identified surplus, and with little understanding of the impact a fishery would have on wild chum salmon. Catches have been poor, indicating low abundance.
The Area 6 seine fishery for pinks, which takes place around Princess Royal Island, has also seen poor catches. Odd-year pink returns are typically stronger than even-year returns; however, this year’s pink catches total around 115,000, which is very poor for an area that can see catches in the millions. Fishermen report discarding 10,000 chum, and 3,300 sockeye. Chinook and coho are also caught as bycatch and discarded in this fishery. There were few at-sea observers in attendance in this fishery this year, despite a policy that requires observers to be present, and a history of serious non-compliance with the requirement to return non-target salmon (like chum and sockeye) to the water with “the least possible harm”. Hence there is no ‘fishery independent’ assessment of discards.
Because of the poor northern net fisheries, the Area 8 (Bella Coola and Dean Channel) pink and chum fishery has seen an influx of boats over the past few weeks. The number of boats fishing here is well above anything seen in recent years and fishing times have been curtailed accordingly. Catches for both chum and pink have been strong with over 270,000 chums and over 1 million pinks being harvested. Stream assessments are just beginning.
South Coast Fisheries and returns
Somass River, Barkley Sound
The Somass River, near Port Alberni was predicted to have a very poor sockeye return of only around 210,000 sockeye. Such levels would preclude any fisheries.
However, the estimated return increased mid-season to around 375,000. This has permitted modest fisheries for all sectors. The catches to date are: First Nations 45,000, Gillnet 12,000, Seine 18,000, and Recreational 22,500. Similar to the Skeena, the increase in abundance here appears to be driven by a stronger than anticipated 5 year-old component.
The target escapement for a total return of 375,000 is around 270,000. (Escapement refers to the number of fish that “escape” fishermen and other predators into their home waters to spawn). Current estimates suggest this target will be met, although warm stream temperatures are slowing migration.
South Coast Recreational fisheries
Recreational chinook and coho salmon fisheries along BC’s south coast intercept fish from dozens of at-risk populations as they swim home to Vancouver Island, the Fraser River, smaller mainland rivers, and Washington State. In an attempt to reduce damage to endangered wild chinook and coho runs, many of these fisheries require the discarding of non-hatchery-marked fish, as well as fish outside a prescribed size range, and non-target species.
Unfortunately, there are no estimates of catch, or more importantly, total mortalities associated with recreational chinook and coho fisheries. Estimates of both retained catch and discards are required to produce an estimate of total mortality. An accurate estimate of the number of fish discarded, and the application of a defensible mortality factor associated with discards, is required to estimate total mortalities associated with the recreational fishery.
Worse, DFO managers do not apply fishery independent estimates of either discards or Fishery Related Incidental Mortality (FRIM). So even if catch information were available, it would understate the actual harvest impacts of the recreational fishery.
Fraser River sockeye, pink, and chinook salmon
It is always an error to report on ‘Fraser sockeye’, as there is no such animal. Sockeye salmon returning to the Fraser River are comprised of more than two dozen genetically distinct populations that have evolved over thousands of years in concert with their unique habitats and environment.
Scientists at DFO have determined the status of 24 Fraser sockeye populations, and ranked them in 5 categories from red to green. Red denotes populations that are below their biological benchmarks, are of concern, or even at risk of extinction, and require rebuilding according to Canada’s Policy for the Conservation of Wild Pacific Salmon. Amber suggests the need for cautionary management, and green denotes populations that are meeting management targets and are not at risk of extinction, (see chart below):
The conservation status of all 24 Fraser River sockeye salmon populations is shown above. Conservation status is ranked counterclockwise along a gradient from red to green. Salmon populations in the red zone are of severe conservation concern while those in the green zone are of no conservation concern.
For ease of management, the Pacific Salmon Commission (PSC) aggregates the 24 unique populations into ‘run-timing groups’. These are groupings of populations that return in the same general timeframe. Timing is the only thing these groupings tend to have in common, other than they all pass under the Port Mann Bridge.
The four timing groups are: Early Stuart, Early Summer, Summer, and Late Summer.
Unfortunately, most of the Fraser sockeye populations appear to have faced harsh conditions upon entering the Salish Sea and Pacific Ocean. The table below shows the pre-season prediction for the run-timing group, and the current estimate of its abundance.
It is too early to tell how the Summer and Late run-timing groups will fare, but current test fishing suggests they are returning below the 25% probability level, or approximately half of the pre-season prediction.
The above estimates are the number of sockeye the PSC estimates will enter the Fraser River. They do not account for the expected in-season mortalities due to the warm water and low flows expected this year. Unfortunately 2017, similar to 2016, could be a record low year for Fraser sockeye populations.
There are no First Nations, commercial, or recreational fisheries open for sockeye, and there are unlikely to be any in the marine areas.
It is too early to say anything about the 2017 pink salmon return to the Fraser River. The return is estimated to be around 8.7 million. A return of this level will support limited fishing. But current test fishing is not promising. Further, there needs to be an allowable catch of sockeye to serve as ‘bycatch’ in any pink fishery. This appears unlikely.
Fraser chinook returns appear to be extremely weak, continuing an alarming downward trend for stream-type chinook (those that go to sea in their 2nd year of rearing in fresh water). Stream type chinook are not alone. Of the 15 south coast chinook populations for which DFO scientists have determined their biological status, nine are designated as ‘red’.
DFO employs the Albion Test Fishery in the lower Fraser River to estimate the abundance of Fraser River chinook. The chart below illustrates how poor the return has been to date (CPUE = catch per unit effort):
All recreational fisheries for salmon adjacent to the Fraser River are closed. Recreational fisheries in outside approach areas, where Fraser chinook are likely to be intercepted, remain open, with the above-mentioned lack of understanding of the impact the fishery is having on these severely depleted salmon runs.
General comments on Management Actions, Monitoring/Enforcement, and Stock Assessment in 2017
Management Actions: troll fisheries
Troll fisheries are continuing for coho off Haida Gwaii and the North Coast.
The lucrative troll fishery for chinook off Haida Gwaii closed short of its quota August 4th when it hit its allowable limit of depressed West Coast Vancouver Island chinook. The fleet left about 16% of its quota in the water.
Management Actions: net fisheries
For the most part, commercial net fishing by gillnets and seines has been limited to pink and chum fisheries in Areas 3, 6, 7, and 8 in the north, and Barkley Sound in the south.
As mentioned previously, DFO may have been too aggressive in allowing net fishing openings for pink salmon in Area 3 (near the mouth of the Nass River) and Area 6 (Douglas Channel and outside waters), especially with evidence of poor catches in its own fisheries, and terrible pink harvests just north of the border in Southern SE Alaska, at hand. When a very small fleet, comprised of some of BC’s best seine fishermen, struggle to half-load their boats, it is pretty good evidence that there is not many fish around.
Management Actions: recreational
Recreational fisheries, including those impacting chinook, continue throughout BC as of this writing.
On August 7th, Alaska’s Department of Fish & Game issued an emergency order closing all Southeast Alaska’s recreational and commercial fisheries targeting chinook in order to protect chinook returning to BC, Washington, and Oregon. The emergency order read:
“Southeast Alaska and British Columbia stocks are experiencing historically low production; many of the affected stocks will not meet escapement goals or management objectives in 2017.
The in-season data and stock specific information cannot be ignored when conservation of wild stocks is the foundation of the Alaska Sustainable Salmon Fisheries Policy and the Pacific Salmon Treaty. Therefore, it is imperative that Alaska offer relief now for these stocks, with a focus on protecting future production.”
DFO has not taken similar direct coastwide action to protect BC’s wild chinook salmon. Under duress from First Nations’ legal action, and the threat of additional legal action, they have only promised to initiate a review of their management of Fraser chinook.
Monitoring and Enforcement
Last season, DFO’s Conservation & Protection (C&P) Division made significant efforts to enforce compliance with commercial fishing regulations. Controversy erupted in Prince Rupert after C&P found flagrant disregard of the requirement to release salmon species of conservation concern “to the water with the least possible harm.” Fishermen argued their ability to earn a living was being eroded in favour of conservation.
Industry’s argument appears to have prevailed in 2017. There is little C&P presence on the water. C&P argues (and there is no denying it) that they do not have the resources to monitor and enforce commercial fisheries. C&P is mandated to employ an industry funded at-sea monitoring program that uses independent third-party observers. The at-sea observer program was promised in this year’s fishing plan yet numerous fisheries have been authorized throughout the north and central coasts without an effective monitoring or enforcement presence.
Some form of industry funded observer or other fishery independent monitoring presence is standard practice in most non-salmon commercial fisheries, even in BC. The lack of effective monitoring or enforcement in BC’s salmon fisheries, where DFO requires the discarding of salmon populations of conservation concern, speaks either to the political power of the recreational and commercial fishing lobbies; a lack of political leadership when it comes to managing Pacific salmon fisheries in the public interest; that managers are ‘captured’ by their clients rather than the public interest; or Conservation and Protection is not honouring their mandate. Likely, it is some combination of the above factors.
The core of any effective salmon management strategy must include monitoring the number of spawning salmon. However, cutbacks over the past decade or so have led to a situation where only 29% of the streams on the north and central coast that should be monitored (according to DFO), are being monitored consistently. Unfortunately, 2017 will be no different. This desired number of monitored streams is only a subset of all the spawning streams that exist on the north and central coast.
What about next year?
There are some indications that things may improve for BC’s salmon. First, it appears unlikely we will see an El Niño event in the winter/spring of 2017/18. Hence, water temperatures will be closer to average. Cooler, or at least more ‘normal’ water temperatures tend to benefit salmon.
The second indicator of a possible better year in 2018 is the abundance of coho on the north and central coasts. Coho spend two years in freshwater, and one year in the ocean. The coho returning this year went to sea in 2016. One year later than the sockeye and chinook salmon returning this year.
This suggests positive environmental conditions associated with cooler ocean temperatures in the winter of 2016 may benefit other species that also went to sea in 2016, including some of next year’s sockeye and chinook runs; at least those that don’t migrate through the Salish Sea. Conditions in the Salish Sea impose a higher level of uncertainty on future returns.
The final positive indicator is the amount of ‘jack’ sockeye identified in the Sproat River in Barkley Sound, and to some extent the Nass River. Jack sockeye are small mature males that return one year earlier than the rest of their cohort. They again entered the ocean in 2016.
The Salish Sea presents a different kettle for fish. Long-term changes in the Salish Sea, including increasing water temperatures and acidity, more harmful algae, the loss of forage fish and some marine commercial fishes, changes in marine plants, more seals and porpoises, are all identified as factors that may be limiting the survival of juvenile salmon as they transit the Salish Sea.
The potential for improved abundance of some salmon populations is uncertain, in particular for south coast chinook and sockeye. Some scientists and researchers believe the negative marine conditions may have extended into 2016, and therefore the 2018 return may also be compromised.
But what about the future?
Forecasting, and worrying about, next year is a failing of my culture. I spent the other day in a meeting with First Nations elders in a northern BC community. One elder passionately described the changes he has seen in water levels, quality, and temperature in his territory over his life. He captured the impacts of global warming in an intensely personal and local manner.
If you take anything from this summary, please let it be the link between North Pacific wide oceanographic/climatic shifts and our salmon. Salmon, this year, are warning us of what the future may look like, irrespective of ‘next year’.