The pre-season prediction was for some reasonable returns of pinks in the north, but not as strong as they were. Unfortunately, as I will speak to later, the better returns did not translate into catch.
Nass sockeye came in better than expected; Skeena sockeye came in a million fish short of forecast.
Skeena River sockeye allowed for commercial fisheries but wild Skeena sockeye populations, as opposed to the enhanced, continue their alarming decline. Wild sockeye populations on the Skeena are in crisis.
The challenge is that the commercial fisheries in Alaska and Canada continue to target enhanced sockeye and overfish the wild populations. This year, it’s estimated that 96.7 per cent of the sockeye returning to Babine Lake were enhanced. Before 1970, wild Babine sockeye supported all fisheries.
On the north coast, coho returns were positive, as were Chinook.
Nass River had a good return of steelhead and Skeena had a disturbingly poor return of steelhead. Both were heavily impacted by interceptions in Alaskan commercial pink salmon fisheries. Unlike what you would expect from a responsible fishery in the developed world, Alaska doesn’t report the numbers of steelhead and other species they discard in their commercial salmon net fisheries. However, we figured out a way to estimate the impact using Alaskan catch data from a sockeye population that shares the same run timing and migration as Skeena steelhead. Our calculations show that almost half the Skeena steelhead run likely ended up dead in Alaskan nets.
As expected, there were no commercial openings for any species on the central coast, where wild chum populations continue to recover from the years of fishing focused on enhanced chum produced by the Snootli hatchery in Bella Coola. DFO has recently cut chum enhancement at the hatchery which should allow this recovery to continue. Pink salmon returns and catches were surprisingly low on the central coast compared to rivers to the north and south.
Somass River/Barkley Sound
Somass River, which flows into Barkley Sound at Port Alberni, had solid returns of sockeye that allowed significant commercial and recreational fisheries. The same for enhanced Chinook from the Robertson Creek hatchery, which saw very strong returns this year, allowing for excellent commercial and recreational fishing opportunities. Unfortunately, wild Chinook populations in the rest of Vancouver Island continue to struggle as their genetic integrity is being undermined by an abundance of enhanced Chinook straying from hatchery production in the area. Wild Chinook runs are also being impacted by fisheries targeting the artificially-enhanced populations.
Chum on the west coast of Vancouver Island were poor and allowed no fisheries. The Nitinat chum hatchery, which supported large commercial fisheries in the past, has failed to produce in recent years.
Fraser River sockeye and pink
The Fraser River, as expected, had a very poor sockeye return – slightly better than expected but still very poor, which allowed for no sockeye fisheries.
Pink salmon had a return maybe double preseason predictions – 12.5 million fish returning to the Fraser. This was fantastic to see after concerns that the gravels that this year’s pink salmon were spawned in may have been scoured out by flooding caused by the atmospheric river in the fall of 2021.
The large pink return supported First Nations and recreational fisheries, and was a boon to the ecosystem. In the past, this abundance of Fraser pinks would have also supported large commercial fisheries in British Columbia and Washington state. However, the collapse of the international market for salmon in 2023 meant that fisheries were few and far between because processors could not sell available pink salmon into international markets. This also affected north coast fisheries. The fish were there to catch, but there was no market for them.
Russia has expanded its salmon production greatly as the warming climate that is undermining our fisheries expands salmon habitat in Russia where it has historically been too cold. Russia is dumping that pink salmon cheap into China, which reprocesses it and then exports it around the world.
If you’re a North American processor, you have to go to China, too. You cannot process it here. The costs are too high relative to China.
So Russia is dumping all this fish into China, it’s flooding the international marketplace, and we cannot compete price-wise with what the market is willing to pay for the finished product.
Russia is setting the price for pink salmon because their costs are lower, their regulatory burden is lower, everything’s lower. And China is saying to the US and Canada “If you want to sell pink salmon to us, you’ve got to sell it for the same price.” And we can’t do it.
Canada no longer has its own processing capacity, and it can’t be sold directly to consumers in a market that has been overtaken by cheaper farmed salmon.
Other South Coast returns
Fraser River spring-type Chinook had very poor returns. Other Chinook populations returning to the Fraser did quite well and there were very large recreational fisheries on the south coast for Chinook and coho, driven by the availability of hatchery fish returning to mostly U.S. and some Canadian hatcheries.
There are also changes in the Salish Sea that are supporting a growing abundance of smaller fish that Chinook prey on. The same changes are attracting humpbacks and other predators to the Salish Sea. We are not really sure what is driving the changes in the Salish Sea but water temperatures are increasing, as are nutrient loads. Whatever the cause, one of the recent beneficiaries appears to be the recreational fishery for Chinook on the south coast. The changes in the Salish Sea are illustrated in the dramatic increase in the catch and discards of immature Chinook that are rearing in the Sea.
Of course, the challenge with managing any large industrial fishery is it also harvests stocks of concern, as well as outside the size range that designates a ‘keeper’. It’s a real challenge to monitor and manage recreational fisheries sustainably in order to harvest enhanced American fish without impacting Canadian stocks of conservation concern. Washington State and Washington Tribes might earn a ‘B’ on how they monitor and manage their recreational Chinook fisheries. I don’t know if one could award DFO anything but a failing grade in comparison.
And finally, chum.
The Fraser River is our largest natural chum producer on the south coast. All other major chum returns on the south coast are produced by hatcheries on the east coast of Vancouver Island.
Both wild and enhanced chums saw very poor returns this year, with enhanced returns being particularly poor. We saw decent returns of hatchery chums in Alaska but all through Canada we saw very poor returns of both wild and enhanced chums. What’s the cause? We don’t know. Because it’s coastwide, one tends to put the finger on ocean conditions, but we don’t know.
Thompson and Chilcotin steelhead also did poorly again and are expected to return below ‘Extreme Conservation Concern’ levels, but they were helped somewhat by the absence of commercial fisheries this year.
We’re still getting spawning reports for Chinook and sockeye. It’s clear that the drought and the warm water conditions they experienced this summer had a negative impact, but we won’t know exactly how bad until the final spawning counts are tallied in the new year.
Fishing is always a trade-off between conservation and economic benefits in the context of the impacts of climate change on salmon abundance, diversity, and now markets. The values inherent in the trade-off are ones that society must balance and speak to.
With Russian production creating such huge changes in international markets, should we be planning fisheries in the same way we have in the past? Should it be business as usual? Or do we need to reevaluate the costs and benefits of fishing?
It is an intriguing question that DFO is addressing through its five-year, $647-million Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative program. We are closer to the end of the program than the beginning and are starting to understand how DFO intends to re-evaluate these trade-offs.
What’s clear is that with the pressures of climate change on our salmon, it’s more important than ever that we do everything we can to give them a fighting chance.