BC Takes Drastic Steps to Rebuild Pacific Salmon Stocks

Pacific salmon
A Pacific salmon. Photo via Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

With Pacific salmon stocks in long-term decline and many of those runs on the verge of collapse, the Canadian government is taking drastic steps in a multi-year program to reduce pressure on exiting stocks and to stabilize and rebuild abundance.

“What cannot be debated is that most wild Pacific salmon stocks continue to decline at unprecedented rates—we are pulling the emergency brake to give these salmon populations the best chance at survival,” Bernadette Jordan, the then-Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, said before leaving office. She announced in mid-2021 long term closures of specific commercial fisheries and the launch of the Pacific Salmon Commercial Transition Program, which provides harvesters with the option to retire their licenses for fair-market value and facilitate the transition to a smaller commercial harvesting sector.

With fewer and fewer Pacific salmon returning each year action is needed now, Jordan has said. Her The fisheries department has vowed to work closely with the industry, indigenous communities and partners as it moves forward with initiatives and everything else in their collective power to ensure a sustainable future for Pacific salmon.

“Together,” she said, “we will turn the corner.” (Note: Jordan’s successor as minister of fisheries, oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, Joyce Murray, took office last October.)

The new transition program includes a voluntary salmon license retirement program which provides harvesters with the option to retire their licenses for fair market value and transition to a smaller commercial harvest sector.

Provincial fisheries officials said permanently removing fishing effort would support the economic viability of the fishery for the long term, while harvest closures will give the fish time to stabilize.

The marine department also vowed to engage with First Nations, harvesters, industry members and partners across the Pacific region regarding the impact of commercial closures and the collaborative development of the mitigation program.

sockeye salmon
A pair of sockeye salmon. File photo via Oceana Canada.

Harvest Transformation

All this is part of the Harvest Transformation pillar, a new, multi-year $647.1 million Pacific Salmon  Strategy Initiative, billed as the largest, most transformative investment Canada has ever made to save wild salmon.

Pacific salmon have social, cultural and economic significance for many Canadians, the department noted. The loss of salmon populations would be a disaster not only for people and wildlife who depend on salmon for food, but for many others in British Columbia whose jobs and lifestyle depend on salmon.

After conservation, the marine department has a legal obligation to provide priority access for First Nations food, social and ceremonial and treaty fisheries, but in recent years may not have been able to meet their harvest allocations because of low salmon returns.

Declines of Pacific salmon populations in BC, Alaska, Washington state, Oregon and California are a complex issue involving not just the impact of climate change, but other natural disasters ranging from huge forest fires to drought, flooding and landslides.

The direct impact of decades of large-scale mining, dams and logging activities acknowledged in some areas of the Pacific Northwest are not specifically mentioned in provincial online discussion of salmon declines in BC.

The provincial government does, however, note that the last six years have been the warmest on the planet, and that forest fires in BC in 2017 and 2018 burned a record number of hectares.

There are some 138 commercial fisheries in BC and the Yukon Territory that target all five species of Pacific salmon in different areas, most of them using gillnet gear, while the rest use purse seine, troll or other equipment, such as beach seine and fish wheels.

Based on the 2021 outlook, which provides information on anticipated salmon stock returns, the 79 individual closures – from a maximum of 138 – will make the greatest impact on the most fragile stocks of concern, the marine department said. The remaining open fisheries may have sufficient abundance to proceed, while posing low risk to stocks of concern; still actual returns from each in-season test fishery were put in place to determine whether they would open. The department said it would consult further on long-term conservation measures with First Nations and commercial harvesters prior to the 2022 fishing season.

Salmon setnetters using purse seine to catch aggregates of fish take about 50% of the commercial catch. Salmon gillnetters take about 25% of the catch with their nets hanging in the water to entangle fish by their gills, and trollers using hook and line suspended from large poles extended from fishing vessels take the other 25%. Both bycatch of fish caught incidentally to the directed harvest and the inadvertent harvest of stocks of concern within the same species are factored into the development of fishing plans to manage impacts.

Program Participation

While all commercial salmon license holders are eligible to participate in the voluntary Pacific Salmon transition program, no data has been made available to date as to the number of harvesters who have opted to participate. In addition to offering commercial license holders the option of exiting the industry in exchange for the value of their licenses, the program will help to gradually address factors affecting the long-term sustainability of the fisheries by limiting them to a smaller size, the marine department said.

Consultations were also underway in the fall and winter of 2021 with many First Nations in BC and the Yukon who hold communal commercial salmon licenses, to provide them commercial access to the fisheries. A number of options were to be explored to continue economic benefits while reducing the impact on wild salmon.

The governments in BC, Alaska and elsewhere have been grappling with the complexities of the decline of Pacific salmon for years. Millions of dollars have already been invested in efforts to help these stocks rebound for the benefit of people and wildlife alike. The balancing act also impacts the livelihoods of thousands of others accustomed to the benefits wrought from dams built to provide power, the mining of valuable minerals critical to modern technology, and trees felled in massive logging operations to construct buildings for homes and businesses.

Millions more dollars are also being invested in research to support the overall survival of fisheries in a warming planet. Options include better gear that catches only targeted species, better use of all fish caught commercially and better management of all fisheries. There is also a push to curb the growing number of illegal, unreported and unregulated fisheries. 

The strategy, according to BC fisheries officials, is to work collaboratively with everyone from the industry—from commercial and recreational harvesters to coastal communities and governments at all levels—to restore viable salmon habitats and healthy stocks.