How to protect at-risk chinook populations as others flourish: DFO should take lessons from our southern neighbours

February 21, 2024

By: Greg Taylor

We are often faced with a blizzard of bad news when it comes to salmon so it is both a relief and encouraging to report on any good news.

This year saw an exceptional return of two populations of Fraser River chinook salmon. The first is a wild population returning to the Shuswap area. The second is to the Harrison, a mixed wild and hatchery-enhanced chinook population. Together, they saw well over 620,000 chinook return to their spawning grounds. The population returning to the Shuswap area (Fraser 4-1s) was triple what has returned in recent years.

While other Fraser chinook populations — especially those important to Southern Resident orcas — remain depressed, they too have seen some – if limited – improvement. The question is why?

The fact is, we don’t know. Most likely it is the marine environment, both in the Salish Sea and in the Pacific Ocean. A triple dip La Niña and a negative PDO (Pacific Decadal Oscillation) leads to cooler waters near North America, which can be beneficial to salmon.

Greg Taylor

Further, there appears to be an abundance of small prey species (anchovy, sand lance, herring, etc.) benefitting juvenile and adult chinook, coho, whales and other similar predators, which suggests the marine environment closer to home is in a positive phase for chinook.

It leads one to question the ‘blame game’ that played out when there were fewer chinook about. The media was full of stories blaming the commercial guys, First Nations, the recreational fishery, and the herring fishery. Or, arguing that we need to cull seals and sea lions. 

One can’t downplay the impacts humans have on salmon, especially when environmental conditions are poor, but it speaks to salmon’s resilience when their habitats are consistent with what salmon require to thrive.

And, we can’t forget that the current reported abundance of chinook isn’t spread evenly across all chinook populations. Early timed Fraser chinook returning to the Fraser River continue to struggle, failing to meet minimum spawner objectives. These are the populations critical to Southern Resident orcas and they are caught and often killed as bycatch in fisheries targeting the more abundant chinook populations.

Chinook salmon

Hence, the abundance of chinook creates challenges for managers and fishers who want to maximize the potential catch of abundant chinook while protecting and, if possible, recovering weaker, sometimes endangered chinook populations. 

Unfortunately, Canada is a decade or more behind Washington State when it comes to managing and monitoring its recreational chinook fishery. The problem is good management and monitoring costs money and neither the recreational fishery, nor DFO, want to pay for it. Yet comprehensive independent monitoring by entities without a vested interest in the fishery—similar to what DFO demands of commercial groundfish and halibut fisheries—is required if we want to have strong recreational chinook fisheries and to also conserve and recover weaker and endangered chinook populations. 

As the most recent Auditor General’s report highlighted, you can’t manage a fishery without the data, and that data is not being collected in B.C.’s recreational chinook fisheries. DFO and the recreational fishing sector should be required to make the investments needed to collect that data.

A good example is this year’s pilot ‘Reference Fishery’. The ‘Reference Fishery’ is a pale shadow of a much more comprehensive test fishing program Washington State, in concert with Washington State Tribes, has had in place for over a decade. It is essentially a test fishery that compares the catch, releases, and stock composition encountered by an independent boat employed by the State relative to what fishers report. 

The pilot Reference Fishery was used to validate the fisher-reported data DFO uses to manage the fishery in a few limited areas and times. Initial reports from the 2023 inaugural Reference Fishery suggest the fisheries-reported data the department relies upon to manage recreational fisheries may have to be reconsidered, or at least, adjusted. 

The successful introduction of a limited test fishery pilot in 2023 indicates that the Reference Fishery needs to be expanded and operated much like Washington State operates theirs. Unlike Washington State, DFO has failed to provide a detailed report on the 2023 test fishery months after the close of the fishery. Washington State, on the other hand, provides anglers and the public test information from the test fishery in-season, using it to aid managers in adjusting fisheries as required in order to minimize impacts on populations of concern.

Good data is essential to evaluate and manage fisheries so they are opened in areas and times expected to have the least impact on weaker populations.

Under Canadian policy, the fishery is responsible for paying for enhanced monitoring. It should be incorporated in the cost of doing business as it is for most other resource industries.

Watershed Watch will continue to urge the recreational industry and DFO to improve the management of recreational fisheries by incorporating fishery-independent monitoring so we can work towards having both sustainable fisheries and strong escapements across all chinook populations, in good environmental years, and the not-so-good ones.

Addendum: On February 20th, Washington State and DFO announced the opening of their spring recreational chinook fisheries in areas where both have concerns for chinook stocks of concern. The two key differences are, Washington State has test fisheries in place, DFO does not. In addition, Washington State has a limit on how many chinook from populations of concern can be killed using the test fishery to identify when the limit is reached. DFO does not. Washington State manages a sustainable fishery consistent with international best practices. DFO does something else.

Greg Taylor is Watershed Watch Salmon Society’s fisheries advisor. He has worked in the B.C. seafood industry for over 30 years. During his career, he has chaired several industry associations and boards and has taken an active interest in developing sustainable salmon fisheries, working closely with First Nations.

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How to protect at-risk chinook populations as others flourish: DFO should take lessons from our southern neighbours

February 21, 2024

By: Greg Taylor

We are often faced with a blizzard of bad news when it comes to salmon so it is both a relief and encouraging to report on any good news.

This year saw an exceptional return of two populations of Fraser River chinook salmon. The first is a wild population returning to the Shuswap area. The second is to the Harrison, a mixed wild and hatchery-enhanced chinook population. Together, they saw well over 620,000 chinook return to their spawning grounds. The population returning to the Shuswap area (Fraser 4-1s) was triple what has returned in recent years.

While other Fraser chinook populations — especially those important to Southern Resident orcas — remain depressed, they too have seen some – if limited – improvement. The question is why?

The fact is, we don’t know. Most likely it is the marine environment, both in the Salish Sea and in the Pacific Ocean. A triple dip La Niña and a negative PDO (Pacific Decadal Oscillation) leads to cooler waters near North America, which can be beneficial to salmon.

Greg Taylor

Further, there appears to be an abundance of small prey species (anchovy, sand lance, herring, etc.) benefitting juvenile and adult chinook, coho, whales and other similar predators, which suggests the marine environment closer to home is in a positive phase for chinook.

It leads one to question the ‘blame game’ that played out when there were fewer chinook about. The media was full of stories blaming the commercial guys, First Nations, the recreational fishery, and the herring fishery. Or, arguing that we need to cull seals and sea lions. 

One can’t downplay the impacts humans have on salmon, especially when environmental conditions are poor, but it speaks to salmon’s resilience when their habitats are consistent with what salmon require to thrive.

And, we can’t forget that the current reported abundance of chinook isn’t spread evenly across all chinook populations. Early timed Fraser chinook returning to the Fraser River continue to struggle, failing to meet minimum spawner objectives. These are the populations critical to Southern Resident orcas and they are caught and often killed as bycatch in fisheries targeting the more abundant chinook populations.

Chinook salmon

Hence, the abundance of chinook creates challenges for managers and fishers who want to maximize the potential catch of abundant chinook while protecting and, if possible, recovering weaker, sometimes endangered chinook populations. 

Unfortunately, Canada is a decade or more behind Washington State when it comes to managing and monitoring its recreational chinook fishery. The problem is good management and monitoring costs money and neither the recreational fishery, nor DFO, want to pay for it. Yet comprehensive independent monitoring by entities without a vested interest in the fishery—similar to what DFO demands of commercial groundfish and halibut fisheries—is required if we want to have strong recreational chinook fisheries and to also conserve and recover weaker and endangered chinook populations. 

As the most recent Auditor General’s report highlighted, you can’t manage a fishery without the data, and that data is not being collected in B.C.’s recreational chinook fisheries. DFO and the recreational fishing sector should be required to make the investments needed to collect that data.

A good example is this year’s pilot ‘Reference Fishery’. The ‘Reference Fishery’ is a pale shadow of a much more comprehensive test fishing program Washington State, in concert with Washington State Tribes, has had in place for over a decade. It is essentially a test fishery that compares the catch, releases, and stock composition encountered by an independent boat employed by the State relative to what fishers report. 

The pilot Reference Fishery was used to validate the fisher-reported data DFO uses to manage the fishery in a few limited areas and times. Initial reports from the 2023 inaugural Reference Fishery suggest the fisheries-reported data the department relies upon to manage recreational fisheries may have to be reconsidered, or at least, adjusted. 

The successful introduction of a limited test fishery pilot in 2023 indicates that the Reference Fishery needs to be expanded and operated much like Washington State operates theirs. Unlike Washington State, DFO has failed to provide a detailed report on the 2023 test fishery months after the close of the fishery. Washington State, on the other hand, provides anglers and the public test information from the test fishery in-season, using it to aid managers in adjusting fisheries as required in order to minimize impacts on populations of concern.

Good data is essential to evaluate and manage fisheries so they are opened in areas and times expected to have the least impact on weaker populations.

Under Canadian policy, the fishery is responsible for paying for enhanced monitoring. It should be incorporated in the cost of doing business as it is for most other resource industries.

Watershed Watch will continue to urge the recreational industry and DFO to improve the management of recreational fisheries by incorporating fishery-independent monitoring so we can work towards having both sustainable fisheries and strong escapements across all chinook populations, in good environmental years, and the not-so-good ones.

Addendum: On February 20th, Washington State and DFO announced the opening of their spring recreational chinook fisheries in areas where both have concerns for chinook stocks of concern. The two key differences are, Washington State has test fisheries in place, DFO does not. In addition, Washington State has a limit on how many chinook from populations of concern can be killed using the test fishery to identify when the limit is reached. DFO does not. Washington State manages a sustainable fishery consistent with international best practices. DFO does something else.

Greg Taylor is Watershed Watch Salmon Society’s fisheries advisor. He has worked in the B.C. seafood industry for over 30 years. During his career, he has chaired several industry associations and boards and has taken an active interest in developing sustainable salmon fisheries, working closely with First Nations.

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3 Comments

  1. Bob Hooton February 22, 2024 at 1:59 pm - Reply

    I receive multiple messages per week from WDFG. As Greg Taylor indicates, they are on their game. There is a great deal of money being spent by BC and DFO on studies and projects far less useful or justifiable than emulating at least some of what Washington does. Consider, for example, $2.2M for a foreign organization to orchestrate construction of a fish trap on the lower Skeena. No project description, no timetable, no list of participants, no indication of reporting responsibilities……. It isn’t the supply of $$$$$$, it’s the distribution. Yeah, I know, pardon my naivete.

  2. Len carr February 28, 2024 at 7:00 pm - Reply

    One thing that the Americans pointed out at the recent salmon commission panel meetings is the poor way the Canadians sports fishery on Chinook and other species are logged for their catch once you fill your license up with ten chinook , you go onto the Internet f and print a new license paper and start all over again filling it up with new catches we gotta have a better way of monitoring the sports catch. Everybody else is responsible for their catchs the sports of gotta come up with a better plan and do a better job.

  3. Gerry Kristianson April 1, 2024 at 1:57 pm - Reply

    Greg: I enjoyed reading your Feb 21 article on the need to protect at-risk chinook populations during fisheries aimed at more abundant stocks. My only quibble is with the assertion that while good management and monitoring costs money, “neither the recreational fishery, nor DFO want to pay for it.”
    I can’t speak for DFO, but the reference to the recreational fishery simply is wrong. As an active participant in the SFAB process for more than 40 years, as a member of the SFAB executive committee since 1997, as Main Board chair for ten years and now Past Chair I can tell you that for at least 20 years we have been trying to persuade the federal government to increase the recreational licence fee, which has remained unchanged since the early 1990s.
    We have made strenuous representations for a fee increase to successive Liberal and Conservative ministers. Our only condition has been that all additional funds be directed to recreational fisheries management on the West Coast and not disappear into general revenue.
    At present, I am cautiously optimistic that success might finally arrive through use of the Services Fees Act. Our representatives have been working closely with Ottawa officials to try and make this happen.

    Gerry Kristianson

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