The salmon fisheries of BC remain threatened and take center stage in the region’s fisheries dialogue.
It’s a new year, which merits a review of British Columbia commercial fisheries in anticipation of the 2023 Salmon Integrated Fishery Management Plans, which are expected to be released for stakeholder consultation in February.
A myriad of challenges face B.C. fisheries, with the threatened Pacific salmon stocks taking center stage. When reached for comment, Fisheries and Oceans BC summarized the sentiment.
“Pacific salmon is fundamental to the livelihoods of thousands of British Columbians, and central to the cultural and spiritual lives of the Indigenous peoples of our country,” the federal agency said in a statement.
“Unfortunately,” the statement continued, “many key Pacific salmon stocks are declining to historic lows, facing persistent and severe challenges at every stage of their lifecycle due to the negative impacts of climate change, habitat degradation, land and water use, acute events like toxic spills and landslides and harvest pressure.”
The negative trend and how the province plans to address it has roots in the 2019 State of Pacific Salmon report by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) that outlined how salmon are responding to climate and habitat changes as part of the Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative (PSSI). Fisheries and Oceans Canada has committed $647M CAD (about $481M USD) over five years to the initiative.
The Conservation and Stewardship pillar of the PSSI focuses on taking action to improve salmon conservation. These actions include investments in research, stock assessment, habitat restoration and enforcement of both domestic and international waters.
“Through targeted science and improved data integration, work under this pillar will help to better our understanding of salmon ecosystems to drive decision-making around ecosystem planning and habitat restoration,” Fisheries and Oceans BC explained. “The PSSI work under this pillar will also provide innovative ways to advance restoration outcomes, strengthen Pacific salmon stocks, and build resilience for climate change.”
According to Fisheries and Oceans, the most recent five years have been the warmest on record for the region. In Canada, the rate of warming has been twice the global average and even greater at northern latitudes.
“While there are many stressors that affect Pacific salmon survival, climate change is rapidly superseding these threats,” Fisheries and Oceans BC stated. “In 2021-22, PSSI provided increased funding for climate change research, building on the 2019 State of Pacific salmon report, as well as introducing key activities and collaborative efforts needed to reduce the vulnerability of our social, economic and ecological systems to climate change.”
Warmer water temperatures last fall created poor conditions for salmon in smaller river systems on Vancouver Island. A few systems where water flow is controlled, such as Cowichan, Campbell, Qualicum, and Stamp Rivers, experienced water levels more typical for this time of year.
Generally, fish were not moving into systems in the area for a time, rather staging in front of rivers or in deep pools in rivers until rains came.
On Oct. 4, the Heiltsuk First Nation identified the death of around 63,000 adult pink and chum salmon in Neekas Creek, located about 25 km (15.5 miles) north of Bella Bella. On Sept. 18, a pre-spawn die-off was initially reported by DFO Charter Patrol with concern raised over additional deaths if no rain events occurred.
Low water levels and salmon escapements to this area have been scant in recent years with no commercial fisheries involved since 2017. The area experienced extremely low-water drought conditions that combined with warm temperatures and lack of rainfall placed significant stress on salmon at their spawning grounds.
Ottawa Buying Out Fishermen
Fishermen’s News Online reported on Dec. 12, that the Canadian government is offering to buy back and retire commercial fishing licenses. The Pacific Salmon Commercial License Retirement Program is a voluntary plan that allows commercial salmon license eligibility holders to retire their license eligibilities permanently for market value through reverse auction.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada has earmarked $123M CAD (about $91.4M USD) for this effort. The Canadian Press news agency reported in mid-December that 1,300 licenses would be eligible to participate.
“Declining Pacific salmon returns have made economic viability in the commercial Pacific salmon industry a significant challenge,” according to the program’s stated goals. “In addition to providing an opportunity for commercial salmon license eligibility holders to exit the industry, this program will transition the fisheries to a smaller commercial harvesting sector, improving their long-term sustainability and financial viability.”
Friction between the open-net pen fish farming industry and wild salmon advocates has intensified. Canada’s Liberal Party and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have called for a complete shift away from open-net pen fish farming by 2025.
DFO and Canadian Coast Guard spokesperson Joyce Murray said their decision to move away from open-net pen aquaculture is based directly on protecting the region’s wild salmon.
“Wild Pacific salmon are an iconic keystone species in British Columbia that are facing historic threats,” Murray said. “Our government is taking action to protect and return wild salmon to abundance and ensure Canada is a global leader in sustainable aquaculture.”
Salmon Interception: Ongoing Tension, Dialogue
Scarce times for BC salmon have exacerbated tensions with neighboring Alaska. A January 2022 technical report commissioned by the Watershed Watch Salmon Society and Skeena Wild Conservation Trust Alaskan Interceptions of BC Salmon: State of Knowledge outlined the status of interceptions of Canadian-born salmon by the Southeast Alaska commercial fishery.
The report “provides information that indicates significant Alaskan exploitation on many BC stocks, such as Area 3 (Nass), 4 (Skeena), and 5 (coastal streams south of the Skeena), coho, chum and pink salmon, other North and Central Coast Chinook and coho, Fraser River sockeye and Chinook from Vancouver Island, Strait of Georgia, and some Fraser River populations.”
“Given the current depressed status of many wild populations across B.C., and in the context of changing marine and freshwater environments due to various threats such as land use, forestry practices and climate change,” the report continued, “further examination of SSEAK (South-Southeast Alaska) impacts on BC salmon appears warranted.”
Canada and the U.S. meet regularly to report to each other on fishery harvest, research, management measures and conservation objectives as part of the Pacific Salmon Treaty. The topic of catch interception is not new between the two nations, but when stocks are low, the fate of every fish attracts attention.
“The department is taking steps, both domestically and with the U.S., to address concerns identified in a report by Canadian environmental organizations about interceptions of Canadian-bound salmon in Alaskan waters,” stated Fisheries and Oceans BC. “The Pacific Salmon Treaty provides the framework through which Canada and the United States work together to conserve and manage Pacific salmon, including managing interceptions. Every year, fishers intercept migratory salmon from each country.”
Norris Comer is a Seattle-based writer and author. His debut memoir, Salmon in the Seine: Alaskan Memories of Life, Death, & Everything In-Between is now available wherever books are sold. You can find him on Substack, Instagram and at norriscomer.com. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.