Greg Taylor: 2023 Season Recap

December 22, 2023

By: Meghan Rooney

The rapidly changing conditions and ongoing stresses on B.C.’s wild salmon have made spawning predictions in recent years a little more art and a little less science. This year, record drought, unprecedented wildfire activity, and a collapse in the international market for salmon didn’t make it any easier.

We spoke with fisheries expert, consultant and advisor to Watershed Watch and SkeenaWild, Greg Taylor about how the season played out compared to his pre-season predictions and some of the trends he sees shaping B.C. salmon policy in future. Here’s what Greg had to say:

North

Pinks in the north came in stronger than expected. We saw strength in pink salmon throughout the expanse of the North Pacific and they’re even being seen into the Arctic and in Norway, where they are considered an invasive species.

Pink salmon seem to be the one beneficiary of how climate change is affecting the Pacific Ocean, and the North Coast and the Skeena River are no exceptions, as we saw better-than-expected pink salmon returns to both the Nass River and the Skeena River.

Fisheries expert Greg Taylor

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.

Share This Story!

Greg Taylor: 2023 Season Recap

December 22, 2023

By: Meghan Rooney

The rapidly changing conditions and ongoing stresses on B.C.’s wild salmon have made spawning predictions in recent years a little more art and a little less science. This year, record drought, unprecedented wildfire activity, and a collapse in the international market for salmon didn’t make it any easier.

We spoke with fisheries expert, consultant and advisor to Watershed Watch and SkeenaWild, Greg Taylor about how the season played out compared to his pre-season predictions and some of the trends he sees shaping B.C. salmon policy in future. Here’s what Greg had to say:

North

Pinks in the north came in stronger than expected. We saw strength in pink salmon throughout the expanse of the North Pacific and they’re even being seen into the Arctic and in Norway, where they are considered an invasive species.

Pink salmon seem to be the one beneficiary of how climate change is affecting the Pacific Ocean, and the North Coast and the Skeena River are no exceptions, as we saw better-than-expected pink salmon returns to both the Nass River and the Skeena River.

Fisheries expert Greg Taylor

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.

Share This Story!

Stand with us to defend wild Pacific salmon

Stand with us to defend wild Pacific salmon

16 Comments

  1. Rich December 24, 2023 at 4:45 am - Reply

    thanks Greg , great info which is so useful for shaping the future of wild salmon

  2. jane paddon December 24, 2023 at 12:27 pm - Reply

    Once again, THANK YOU Greg. Your truths, facts, reality, honesty, are all appreciated.

  3. Neil Frazer December 28, 2023 at 3:48 pm - Reply

    Yes, thanks Greg. Very informative. I wish the only “enhancements” allowed were greatly enlarged riparian zones.

  4. Al Cowan December 30, 2023 at 1:37 pm - Reply

    I for one would purchase locally processed salmon per foreign processed regardless of the price. I believe we need to promote “buy local” for as many food types as we can.

  5. Glen Stoner December 31, 2023 at 10:01 am - Reply

    Thanks Greg for a very well done comprehensive report on the state of Pacific Salmon.
    One note I’d like to mention and maybe you can comment on, you note the higher than expected return of pink Salmon to the Fraser River in light of the damaging conditions 2 years prior that we had with gravel being scoured by high river flows due to the atmospheric river conditions. I don’t think main stem spawners were affected much but some tributaries such as the Vedder/Chilliwack and the Coquihalla saw much lower returns because of possible spawning gravel scouring.

    • ggreg Taylor January 4, 2024 at 6:47 pm - Reply

      Interesting comment. I will look into it. Thanks Glen

  6. Gary Holman December 31, 2023 at 2:00 pm - Reply

    Has the Nisga’a fisheries agreement and the use of fish wheels in the Nass contributed to better management and sustainability of Nass stocks?

    • ggreg Taylor January 4, 2024 at 6:49 pm - Reply

      Absolutely. The Nisga’a have the most comprehensive salmon monitoring and management program in the province. We would be in a much better place if DFO replicated it across the Province.

  7. Russ Jacobson December 31, 2023 at 6:31 pm - Reply

    Your opinion:
    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.
    There has been no real commercial fishery for 20 years on the Fraser so to say they were helped by it is in my opinion false. If anything is helpful is the closer of catch and release which came little to late.

    • ggreg Taylor January 5, 2024 at 6:21 pm - Reply

      Thanks for your comment Russ. My thoughts are that neither the C&R, nor the commercial fishery, is the ‘smoking gun’. The decline can likely be better appropriated to changes in climate and resulting changes in marine and terrestrial habitats. Managers just were too slow to make changes and the result is harvest only compounded and accelerated the decline. And let’s face it, we can’t put this at the feet of the managers alone. Most stakeholders were demanding fisheries be maintained.

      You would think we would learn. But alas, Skeena steelhead appear to be following a similar trajectory and the C&R fishery is allowed to continue unchanged.

      My last thought is that reallocating harvest from gillnets to poorly monitored and enforced ‘selective’ beach seines is good PR but insufficient from a conservation .

  8. Gavin Towle January 1, 2024 at 6:49 am - Reply

    Greg,

    Fascinating write up; particularly interested in learning more about Alaskan netting. During an episode of Jeremy Wade’s Dark Waters(?) I believe, he explores Alaska and this new problem their facing up there regarding NO king salmon returning recently. He refers to the negligence of commercial fisheries and the ability to decimate non-targeted species.

    If possible to collect more information regarding these points of concern, there be a greater chance of reaching people on a factual level they can’t ignore.

    Much of this article was surprising, in that regardless of countless difficulties, somehow life finds a way. If we could simply step away and let nature do some corrective surgery, perhaps she would flourish again.

    Thank you for your contribution to the community!

    • ggreg Taylor January 5, 2024 at 6:20 pm - Reply

      Thanks for your comment Russ. My thoughts are that neither the C&R, nor the commercial fishery, is the ‘smoking gun’. The decline can likely be better appropriated to changes in climate and resulting changes in marine and terrestrial habitats. Managers just were too slow to make changes and the result is harvest only compounded and accelerated the decline. And let’s face it, we can’t put this at the feet of the managers alone. Most stakeholders were demanding fisheries be maintained.

      You would think we would learn. But alas, Skeena steelhead appear to be following a similar trajectory and the C&R fishery is allowed to continue unchanged.

      My last thought is that reallocating harvest from gillnets to poorly monitored and enforced ‘selective’ beach seines is good PR but insufficient from a conservation perspective.

  9. Craig Dickson January 3, 2024 at 5:47 pm - Reply

    So we had poor Chinook Returns on the Fraser yet Anglers still kill fish at Pritchard ( Above Kamloops ) and Shuswap Chinook .. less than 20 Kms from their Spawing Grounds get Killed by Anglers …NUTS

    • ryan goodman February 24, 2024 at 11:19 am - Reply

      The South Thompson had a very good return of Chinook this year, whereas the North Thompson stocks are still of concern. That’s why it was only open for retention above Kamloops.

  10. Dave Goyer January 4, 2024 at 11:56 am - Reply

    Thanks for your time and efforts in these salmon studies.

  11. ggreg Taylor January 5, 2024 at 6:31 pm - Reply

    I apologize Gavin. My response was meant for Russ above.

    I think Dark Waters was likely referring to the bycatch of chinook (and halibut, crab, and Orcas) is trawl fisheries for pollock much further north in the Gulf of Alaska than where our salmon are intercepted.

    It is ironic that Alaskan FNs and others are incensed about the bycatch in these fisheries but give a pass to the interception of B.C. salmon in southeast Alaskan fisheries. One thing to keep in mind is that every time we see sockeye salmon for sale in Thrifty’s or other grocery stores, we are part of the problem. We are buying into Alaska’s conceit that their salmon are ‘sustainably harvested’.

Leave A Comment

Related Posts