Banner Year for Selective Fisheries
The days are growing shorter, the leaves are falling to the ground, and the final salmon runs of 2011 are making their way onto the spawning grounds. For reasons both good and bad, 2011 was a remarkable year for salmon in BC.
First, the good. Conservationists are celebrating the revival of selective, sustainable fisheries by First Nations across the province. These commercial fisheries, operated by First Nations in their traditional territories, give British Columbians access to salmon harvested from strong runs, with little or no bycatch of salmon from small or depleted runs. Put simply, these are fisheries that allow us to conserve biological diversity, and eat it too.
Here are some highlights.
This year, the total return of sockeye salmon to the Harrison River, a tributary of the mighty Fraser near Vancouver, topped a record 1 million fish. Even though a quarter of these fish were expected to die before spawning, the large return allowed for the Chehalis and Scowlitz First Nations to harvest a large number of these fish in their terminal commercial fishery.
“Terminal” fisheries are fisheries that take place close to the spawning grounds of a particular salmon population, and often only harvest fish from that specific population. Locating fisheries in “terminal” areas relieves fishing pressure on depleted salmon populations that would inadvertently be caught as “bycatch” in areas where multiple populations co-mingle, such as coastal waters. Overfishing in these “mixed-stock” fisheries has contributed to the collapse of multiple salmon populations in BC, such as Cultus Lake sockeye.
Further north, a similar story unfolded. Far up the Skeena watershed, near the town of Burns Lake, the Lake Babine Nation revived a tremendously productive terminal fishery that was outlawed in 1906 to reduce competition with the coastal salmon canning industry that was flourishing at that time. Elimination of the Babine fishery allowed the Lake Babine sockeye to be taken in mixed-stock coastal fisheries to supply the coastal canneries. While the abundant Babine sockeye could withstand the high harvest rates, many smaller populations were overfished – in some cases to extinction. But, for the 29 remaining genetically unique sockeye populations in the Skeena – BC’s second largest salmon bearing watershed – the revival of the Lake Babine fishery this year brings a much-needed reprieve, a chance to rebuild several depleted stocks, and a chance to show the world that sustainability tastes good, too.
In other good news, sockeye returns to Rivers Inlet on BC’s central coast, near Bella Bella, are rebounding after a decade-long population collapse and fishery closure. On Vancouver Island, a banner sockeye return to the Somass River near Port Alberni, allowed for successful terminal fisheries by the Tseshaht and Hupacasath First Nations. And returns of chum salmon to many Vancouver Island rivers, including the Somass and the Sarita, are the best they’ve been in recent memory.
But it wasn’t all good news.
On BC’s north coast, serious conservation concerns for chum salmon led fishery managers to require fishermen to release chum salmon caught as bycatch in fisheries coastal mixed-stock fisheries targeting pink salmon. While this may seem like a reasonable measure, managers did not require independent observers to be present to ensure safe handling of the fish (as is required in other fisheries). Given the competitive, time-limited nature of these fisheries, the end result was large numbers of chum salmon being thrown back in the water either dead, or so roughly that their ability to survive to spawn was questionable. These same fisheries also had high rates of bycatch on sockeye salmon from depleted populations.
On another tributary of the Fraser River near Prince George, the beleaguered early Stuart sockeye run suffered a record low return, raising questions about their long-term prospects for survival. And although pink salmon returned to the Fraser in healthy numbers this year, there were widespread reports that many were jaundiced. Likewise, a high proportion of pink salmon on the Skeena River were reported to be covered in pustules. In both cases, the root cause of the troubling symptoms is still not clear.
So, as is often the case in the wild world of salmon, this year was indeed a mixed bag.
Much work remains in changing the way we fish for salmon, and we still look forward to a day when decision makers can be trusted to act in the public interest when it comes to salmon conservation. But, we can take heart in knowing that some salmon populations in BC remain abundant, despite a century of habitat destruction, overfishing, and other insults. This knowledge inspires hope that the many salmon populations still at risk across BC can be brought back if we give them half a chance.