Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) is the largest and longest lived of the Pacific salmon species, with some growing to nearly 100 lbs. Monster specimens are still caught on rare occasions, but the average size of Chinook has been declining and they now tend to tip the scales in the range of 10 to 30 lbs, measuring in the neighbourhood of 30 to 40 inches. Chinook are also affectionately referred to as springs, kings, and smilies, among other things.
Chinook were at one time relatively plentiful, and available much of the year off the B.C. coast. Over the years, wild Chinook salmon abundance has been dramatically reduced through habitat degradation, global warming, overfishing and changes in their marine environment. Viruses from fish farms and genetic weakening from interbreeding with hatchery-raised fish have also made things harder for wild B.C. Chinook runs.
In the Fraser River, 14 of 16 Chinook populations have been assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada as threatened or endangered, making them eligible for listing under Canada’s Species At Risk Act. Only one Fraser population, the south Thompson summer run, was not at risk.
These populations continue to decline, and with them, the endangered southern resident killer whale population who rely on them as a food source.
Most other wild chinook populations have not been assessed by either DFO or COSEWIC. However, they too have likely suffered significant declines in abundance and diversity.
Fisheries Related Incidental Mortality
B.C. Chinook salmon get caught in commercial, recreational and Indigenous food fisheries, in B.C., Alaskan and international waters. Here in B.C., the federal government’s allocation policy allows the recreational fishery to take approximately 10 times more Chinook salmon than the commercial fishery. While recreational fishers are not targeting endangered Chinook populations, they are being caught as bycatch in other fisheries—such as those targeting hatchery-raised Chinook)—and then released back into the ocean. The released fish can be killed by injuries while being caught, or by predators like sea lions that follow fishers hoping to take advantage of a stunned, freshly-released salmon. Or they may die, hours, days or weeks later, as a result of the trauma of being caught, before they can successfully spawn. The sum of all these fishing-related causes of death is called Fisheries Related Incidental Mortality (or FRIM), and DFO does not know enough about it to accurately account for it in their management of B.C. Chinook.
In fact, according to the Marine Conservation Caucus, DFO significantly underestimates the true total mortality of Chinook in marine recreational salmon fisheries. In order to dig deeper into this issue, Watershed Watch and partners have begun a research project with the goal of developing a framework for calculating FRIM in south coast recreational Chinook fisheries.
This study would collaboratively address important nuances to applying FRIM rates such as times and areas, guided versus non-guided fishing, marine and freshwater temperatures, and pinniped abundance. Ultimately, accurate FRIM calculations would allow fishers to catch more when we know it is safe to do so and avoid areas, times and fishing methods that kill endangered Chinook at unacceptably high rates.
Accurate and specific estimates of FRIM are essential for the management of recreational Chinook fisheries on B.C.’s south coast.
Illegal, unreported and unregulated fisheries
Significant numbers of endangered Chinook are likely being encountered in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fisheries, particularly in the Fraser River. In fact, it is possible that IUU fisheries may be the single largest killer of endangered Fraser River Chinook. DFO managers are aware of the issue but fishery managers are not properly accounting for the catch from IUU fisheries.
Better enforcement is required, but is only part of the answer. Even with greater resources, it would be hard to police the entire river. Moreover, the government appears reluctant to support charges being laid. We are calling on DFO to work with their fishery management partners to monitor the river on a daily basis, estimate fishing effort (using boats, aircraft, etc.) and catch (based on what the legal fisheries are catching), and make the results public. Only then can we understand the true impacts of IUU fisheries on endangered salmon populations and, from there, begin to address them.
Impacts of Southeast Alaskan fisheries
Before Chinook hit B.C.’s south coast recreational fishery and those IUU fisheries in the Fraser River, they first have to make it past commercial fisheries situated further north along their migration route. Most of these are conducted in Southeast Alaska, where B.C. Chinook salmon travel on their way home. In fact, only 3% of Southeast Alaska’s Chinook harvest is fish from Alaska. The remaining 97% are from B.C. & west coast US states. This fishery is certainly impacting B.C.’s endangered Chinook populations.
This month, in a bombshell court victory, our friends at Wild Fish Conservancy won a lawsuit against US federal fisheries regulator NOAA for failing to protect endangered southern resident killer whales by allowing unsustainable levels of Chinook harvest in Southeast Alaska.
B.C. fishers and conservationists have been calling out overharvesting B.C. salmon of all species in Alaskan fisheries and now we have the US courts backing us up. It’s time for Alaska to move their fisheries in southeast Alaska to areas where they will catch far fewer fish bound for B.C. and Washington rivers.