Greg Taylor, Fisheries Advisor, Watershed Watch Salmon Society
Note: Since this update was originally published, our knowledge of the abundance of several salmon runs mentioned here have changed. For example, Fraser sockeye are now on track for their worst run on record, and the Skeena River sockeye return improved significantly allowing Indigenous, commercial and recreational fisheries to open.
This year’s survey of early season salmon forecasts, accompanied by an attempt to interpret where we might end up relative to these forecasts, begins with a brief memory.
Back in 1981, I was beginning my career as a fish buyer, working as a bookkeeper/gofor/gasman at the last remaining independent cannery in B.C. The cannery stood alone on an arm of the Skeena River, surrounded by wilderness and the ghosts of the twenty other busy canneries that once clustered around the mouth of the Skeena.
Our gillnet fleet was largely from the Gitanyow and Gitxsan Nations with a strong contingent of Japanese-Canadian fishermen. Our small cannery bought fish from about 75 gillnetter and 40 seine boats. Together with the cannery, boat yard, machine shop, net loft and tendermen, over 500, largely First Nations people, were employed.
That first year, our relatively small fleet caught 2,773,822 pounds of sockeye. (How do I recall that when my wife says I often forget what I had for breakfast? It is because it was my phone number growing up.)
Our 1981 sockeye catch comprised almost 500,000 sockeye (fish were larger then), plus another 350,000 pinks and thousands of chinook, coho, and steelhead. Looking back, catches of that size were not sustainable, and most researchers and DFO managers knew it. I completed my Masters thesis, saying much the same, about eight years later.
Unfortunately, as is too often the case in B.C., we collectively valued economic benefits in the moment over sustaining communities and ecosystems over the long term. The impact of the collapse of salmon fisheries is still being felt in communities around B.C.
This year, not only will there be limited, if any, sockeye catch, all those good paying local jobs employing First Nations are also gone. So when I mention potential surpluses below, please keep their relative size in mind.
Not all bad news
This early season survey of B.C.’s salmon returns does not make for comfortable reading, but there is some potentially better news.
I am hearing reports from different sources of pink salmon in Southeast Alaska and on B.C.’s north and central coasts. We can’t yet assess the strength of the returns because most early fisheries have been limited due to concerns for other species. We don’t know if the returns are strong or an artifact of migration patterns and the limited Alaskan fishery so far this year, or even where they may be going. My bet is Area 6, near Hartley Bay where the MV Queen of the North sank. Pinks are also being noted in south coast recreational fisheries. Because pink salmon only return to the Fraser River on odd years, there won’t be a Fraser River pink salmon fishery this year. However, I am still hopeful that many of our smaller rivers and streams will see improved returns. Abundant pink salmon returns are often critical inputs for coastal ecosystems.
There are indications that many salmon returns in Alaska and northern B.C. are returning up to a week later than normal. Therefore, early results for species other than pinks may not be as dire as they currently appear.
The development of La Niña conditions is favoured beginning later this summer and continuing into the fall and winter of 2020/21. Such conditions tend to benefit B.C. salmon, so there is hope, if we allow sufficient salmon to escape fisheries and spawn, we will see improved salmon abundance in the future. It would certainly help if DFO followed Canadian law and policy and had spawning targets in place, and then managed fisheries to achieve them, as Alaska does. But that is an issue to take up another day.
Now the less than good news.
Nass and Skeena sockeye returns were forecast to be poor in 2020 and Nass River sockeye appear to be returning at just half their pre-season forecast. Skeena returns began very poorly but appear to be improving slightly. The return is not currently on track to trigger any marine commercial fisheries. First Nations have restricted their food fisheries on the central coast.
Barkley Sound is currently seeing some very limited commercial sockeye fisheries as that return is exceeding the very poor forecast by a marginal amount. This is the one fishery DFO manages with escapement objectives for individual runs within the return.
It is extremely unlikely there will be a Fraser sockeye fishery this year. The forecast is a return of about 941,000 sockeye, about 70% of the cycle year average. But, as usual, this aggregate forecast disguises some serious concerns. Early Stuart sockeye are forecast to return at 20% of the cycle year average; Early Summer at 84%, Summers at 73%, and Late Summers at 14%. Within most of these rough management groups there are individual populations classified as endangered and expected to do very poorly, especially given the additional challenge some face in getting past the Big Bar landslide.
It is too early in the season to provide any useful information on coho. Coho, like pink salmon, return after one year at sea. There are early hints from Alaskan boundary fisheries and south coast recreational fisheries that some coho runs may see a reasonable return. But this is tempered by a cautious forecast for west coast Vancouver Island coho. Interior Fraser coho are classified as ‘threatened’ by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), a federally mandated science body.
Like, coho, it is too early in the season to say anything definitive about pinks. Alaskan test fisheries are suggesting a relatively strong return. We are also seeing signs of pink abundance in B.C. As I write this, the first significant Area 6 seine fishery in some years opened, and fishing appears to be good. This is not unusual in cooler water years when B.C. pinks take a more southerly approach, avoiding Alaskan fisheries. But one cannot get carried away with excitement over these reports. I recall when we had 300 seine boats fishing in Areas 3 to 6 (Alaskan border down to Princess Royal Island). In the past few years, there have been as few as 30 seines fishing the whole north and central coast and many escapement goals were not achieved. But still, pinks are important contributors to coastal ecosystems and it would be exciting to see any kind of improvement. This is especially true for Skeena River pinks which have seen a collapse in abundance over the past couple of decades.
We cannot endorse the Area 6 seine, or other Central Coast seine fisheries, as being sustainable because they have refused to adopt inexpensive, but effective, bycatch monitoring and enforcement tools that the major processors themselves helped develop in partnership with Watershed Watch Salmon Society and UBC.
However, COVID-19 has shrunk salmon markets, putting working fishermen in a difficult position. We don’t think the fishermen should bear all the costs of the major processors refusal to fish responsibly, so we encourage you to buy wild B.C. pink salmon produced by independent fishermen and smaller processors.
It is too early to say much about chums. Alaskan test and commercial fisheries are poor and early Area 8 ( Namu to Bella Coola) fisheries were also poor. This does not bode well for wild north and central coast chum salmon, already characterized as being ‘stocks of concern’, that are caught and killed in fisheries targeting pinks or hatchery produced chums. In the past, I have found that chum returns follow a trend across southeast Alaska and into B.C. and that individual chum returns rarely buck a poor trend.
Wild B.C. Chinook appear to be doing poorly. This is especially true for the Fraser River. All fishing has been closed on the Nass due to concerns for Nass River Chinook. Skeena Chinook appear to be doing better than the last couple of years, but still well below their historical average. First Nations on the Skeena are angry, and have sent letters to DFO, condemning the relaxation of recreational fishing regulations on Skeena Chinook.
Of the 15 south coast wild Chinook populations assessed to date, 12 are in the ‘red’ zone, equivalent to COSEWIC’s ‘endangered’ designation. The other 20 populations are considered data deficient and were not assessed.
Eleven of the 13 Fraser River Chinook populations that have been assessed have been designated by COSEWIC as either ‘endangered’ or ‘threatened.’ Some Fraser River stream-type Chinook are in danger of extirpation due to low returns, continued fishing pressure, and the Big Bar slide.
The later-timed Fraser 4-1 Chinook (non-stream-type) are healthy and a reasonably strong return is forecast. The Harrison River forecast is a special case as the only Fraser Chinook population DFO is required (by international treaty) to manage relative to an escapement target. DFO has not met this target for several years and the treaty requires they take action in 2020. They have not announced what, if any, actions they intend to take.
Any recreational fisher can tell you there is reasonable fishing for Chinook on the south coast. Much of the catch comprises Puget Sound and other US and Canadian hatchery fish migrating down B.C.’s east and west coasts and feeding in the Salish Sea. However, as with all mixed stock fisheries, the challenge is protecting less abundant stocks while allowing for the harvest of more abundant ones. When the less abundant ones decline to where they become classified by Canada as endangered, like Fraser River and east coast Vancouver Island Chinooks, the challenges make for some difficult social, political and ecological choices. Moreover, DFO’s catch and compliance monitoring of endangered Chinook is so poor, it took DFO 9 months after the conclusion of the 2019 season to provide a rough estimate of how many endangered Chinook may have been killed in various recreational, First Nations, and commercial fisheries. DFO’s mandate is to protect fisheries over protecting fish, despite the fact that, according to opinion polls, British Columbians want to put conservation first.
Interior Fraser steelhead populations are very near extirpation with only 89 steelhead returning to the Thompson in 2019 and 39 to the Chilcotin. The 2020 forecast looks similar or worse. Fraser steelhead are caught as bycatch in chum fisheries, so any kind of interception fishery for chum salmon could spell doom for these populations. Last year, the federal government, with support from the Province, declined to protect these iconic populations under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. The recovery plan they offered up in lieu of protection under the act appears to be insufficient.
Marine Stewardship Council Certification
The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is a global non-profit organization established to protect the last major truly wild food resourc: seafood. It certifies 900 wild fisheries and 38,000 wild seafood products worldwide as sustainable (including Alaskan and some Russian salmon fisheries). Last fall, MSC pulled B.C.’s salmon certification because of DFO’s refusal to take the remedial actions MSC required of them. My hope had been that DFO would make the necessary investments to avoid being seen internationally as unwilling to meet MSC’s minimum standards for a sustainable wild fishery. With this last hope gone, I am unable to a see path forward to reforming DFO, other than public action.
Big Bar Slide
Significant progress had been made to improve fish passage at the Big Bar slide. Earlier this year, a WHOOSH system for transferring fish above the slide was installed. Altogether, over $53 million has been spent thus far to protect Chinook and sockeye populations that return to spawn in areas above the slide. These populations sustained thriving First Nations’ cultures and economies for millennia but have, in the last few decades, been reduced to dangerously low numbers, leaving them little to no resilience against this naturally-occurring event.
Unfortunately, due to a heavy snowpack and a cool, wet spring, Fraser flows were well above average early this season. Fish passage is still limited (but predicted to improve as water levels recede further), and some of the remedial work may have been set back. Our best hope may be that Chinook and sockeye could arrive later than normal at the blockage due to later timing and high water and may still have some chance to migrate past the slide. Given this situation, DFO should stop all fishing to protect the later-timed Chinook and sockeye currently migrating up the Fraser. Unfortunately, this has not occurred.
Predicting salmon returns is foolhardy business and this update doesn’t cover all B.C. salmon runs. I look forward to updating this information in the fall, cataloguing where I went wrong and maybe guessed right. Until then, be kind, be calm, and be safe.