Overview of the 2016 Salmon Season & Outlook for 2017
prepared by Greg Taylor, Fisheries Advisor
- Warm ocean conditions and variable freshwater conditions led to reduced salmon returns coastwide
- Reports by DFO’s Conservation and Protection Branch indicate high levels of non-compliance in several important fisheries
- The level of core stock assessment funding for salmon reached an all-time low in 2016, leaving critical gaps in the monitoring of our salmon runs
- Recent environmental conditions that are detrimental to salmon production will likely reverberate through 2017 – 2019, suggesting returns will continue to be both highly variable and unpredictable
- Worst Fraser sockeye salmon return in history (< 1 million); no commercial fishing
- Record low returns of Thompson River steelhead; likely significant bycatch impacts in chum fisheries
- Skeena sockeye salmon, chum and pink returns were low; Skeena sockeye were overfished relative to agreed-upon targets
- Central Coast chum salmon fisheries occurred in areas where spawning targets for wild salmon were not met
- Some South Coast chinook populations remain under threat even as large mixed stock recreational harvests continue; these chinook are a critical food source for First Nations along the Fraser River, and for endangered killer whales
- DFO is moving to dismantle Canada’s Policy for the Conservation of Wild Pacific Salmon and align it with the Harper government’s changes to the Fisheries Act
- Strong returns of South Coast chum; fisheries met escapement targets, although steelhead bycatch in some of these fisheries was a concern
- Some indications of recovery of Rivers and Smith Inlet sockeye
- Barkley Sound sockeye returns were good, and the fishery was well-managed
- Fraser coho returns were in line with recovery objectives, but this was likely due to a lack of fishing for Fraser sockeye due to the extremely low return, rather than intentional management efforts aimed at rebuilding the endangered coho runs
How did BC’s salmon fare in 2016?
Overall, 2016 was a year of extremes, marked by disappointing returns of many salmon populations that went to sea in 2014, and a remarkably strong return of South Coast chum salmon that entered the ocean a year earlier.
Scientists first detected what became popularly known as “the blob”1 in 2013. This vast area of abnormally warm water grew to around nine million square kilometers. It slowly dissipated during 2015, but was followed by a powerful El Niño event lasting from 2015 through much of 2016.
As a result of the abnormal ocean conditions present from 2014 through 2016, warm waters dominated the North Pacific ecosystem, ushering in new predators and unusual zooplankton. Many salmon entering the marine environment in 2014 did not fare well, with some—like some interior Fraser sockeye and stream-type Fraser chinook runs—returning in very low numbers.
Warmer Pacific waters also affected BC’s terrestrial and freshwater environments, leading to warmer and lower stream flows that undermined both adult salmon survival on their return migration to their spawning grounds, and juvenile freshwater production.
On the other hand, chum salmon returning to rivers and hatcheries on BC’s South Coast may have benefited from a coastwide bloom of gelatinous zooplankton in 2014-15. These chums returned in very strong numbers in 2016. The other salmon population that ran counter to the general trend of poorer than average returns, and provided significant commercial and recreational fishing opportunities, was Barkley Sound sockeye.
The ‘hangover’ effect of the warm ocean environment may continue through 2019. The impacts of a warmer ocean may reduce productivity for salmon populations returning in 2017. Further, winter freshets and summer drought in 2015 may reduce salmon fry and smolt production in 2016-17. These factors could constrain adult returns through 2019.
Both the 2015 and 2016 salmon returns illustrate how unstable environmental conditions in marine and freshwater ecosystems can produce highly variable returns and altered traits such as age of return, body size and condition, timing of returns, migration and spawning success, and ability to survive the impacts of catch-and-release fisheries.
Climate change is expected to give us greater and more abrupt variability in environmental conditions, which will make forecasting and managing salmon even more challenging in the future. This uncertainty and variability will necessitate more caution in how we manage salmon fisheries and salmon habitat.
What were some of the key management and enforcement issues?
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) exhibited more precaution in the management of some fisheries than others. Skeena sockeye were overfished relative to their approved management targets. This is disappointing as Skeena sockeye are exhibiting a troubling downward trend in productivity (the number that return relative to the number that spawned), and will likely experience very poor returns over the next two or three years. More careful adherence to the agreed-upon fishing plan would have put many more fish into the river, providing much-needed spawners to help rebuild Skeena sockeye.
Central Coast chum salmon fisheries occurred in several areas where spawning targets were not met. This is of concern not only for future salmon generations but also for bears and other wildlife that count on a bounty of salmon to survive the long Central Coast winters.
Recreational and commercial fisheries harvesting depressed South Coast chinook populations remain a concern. The abundance of Fraser River chinooks is insufficient to meet the needs of First Nations and endangered southern resident killer whales. Further, there is no recovery plan in place to rebuild these populations to their upper benchmarks as required under Canada’s Wild Salmon Policy (which DFO is currently attempting to dismantle and align with Harper government’s changes to the Fisheries Act).
Meanwhile, recreational fisheries in the Salish Sea remain the largest mixed stock, non-subsistence harvester of these depressed South Coast chinook runs. While DFO requires discarding chinook outside of maximum and minimum size limits to protect these fish (also known as “slot limits”), there is no measure of whether this practice is effective in reducing fishing mortality on these at-risk salmon populations.
The South Coast chum fishery is a mixed-stock fishery (it is comprised of many discrete populations of varying productivity and status) that harvests both wild and hatchery-raised fish. DFO has reduced the mixed-stock element of the fishery to a maximum 20% harvest rate, with local surpluses taken in terminal fisheries. They retained this management strategy through 2016. The strategy has merit for other large mixed-stock fisheries such as Fraser sockeye, Fraser chinook, and Skeena sockeye.
Compliance and Enforcement
Salmon fishery management remains compromised by a lack of compliance with regulations needed to protect and recover depleted stocks. In 2016, populations requiring this protection included Nass River sockeye, several significant North and Central Coast chum populations, and Fraser River steelhead and chinook. Unlike most other North Pacific salmon management agencies, DFO requires recreational and commercial fishers to discard non-target salmon in order to minimize harvest impacts on salmon populations requiring protection.
Discarding is only effective if fishermen comply with the regulations, if managers have a solid understanding of long-term mortalities associated with fishing practices, and if total mortalities are accounted for in fishing plans.
Unlike other BC fisheries, such as commercial groundfish and halibut, recreational and commercial salmon fisheries are not required to have independent monitoring in place to provide credible estimates of the number and condition of non-target species caught and released.
DFO’s Conservation and Protection (C&P) Branch is responsible for enforcing fishing regulations. In fisheries where they could muster the necessary resources for monitoring and enforcement, such as North Coast seine and Fraser gillnet fisheries, high levels of non-compliance were recorded.
More disturbing, C&P notes that compliance is inversely related to the presence of enforcement officers during fisheries. C&P acknowledges a lack of resources precludes them from effectively monitoring many recreational and commercial fisheries. Hence, it is reasonable to assume non-compliance is relatively high in fisheries requiring discarding in the absence of an effective enforcement presence.
The Conservation and Protection Branch, and not DFO Fisheries Management, is responsible for monitoring compliance. Because the two branches of DFO operate independently from one another, there can be a disconnect between Fisheries Management, which develops and implements fishing plans, and Conservation and Protection, which is responsible for monitoring and enforcing them.
C&P has limited resources and is unable to monitor many fisheries at levels required to meet its own nationally-set compliance targets. However, they did make an impressive effort in 2016 to monitor North Coast fisheries. While the levels of noncompliance they found are disturbing, C&P’s efforts, and DFO’s response (delaying the opening and threatening to close fisheries), were important steps towards bridging the divide between C&P and fisheries managers.
On the North Coast, the commercial fishing industry has funded a limited at-sea observer program under DFO regulations that devolve monitoring responsibility onto industry. In 2016, the program only operated in two of the six significant North Coast commercial fisheries. In the two fisheries, the program monitored only a limited number of the areas and times open to fishing. Similar to 2015, industry refused to provide First Nations and conservation groups with data from this monitoring program. Furthermore, this important monitoring information is not put to optimal use by fishery managers in “real time” during the fishing season. The situation on the North Coast raises serious concerns about giving the recreational and commercial fishing sectors responsibility for the monitoring of a public resource.
Monitoring of spawning abundances
Tracking the number of salmon coming back to BC’s rivers and streams is an essential part of the federal government’s salmon management responsibilities. DFO’s monitoring efforts hit an all-time low in 2016.
A recent report for DFO and the Pacific Salmon Foundation, “Review of Salmon Escapement Indicator Streams for the North and Central Coast,” states that 37 important ‘indicator’ streams are no longer monitored. The situation is of special concern for coho, where 30 indicator streams have been removed from the list of key indicator streams.
The North Coast charter patrol budget has seen similar cuts in resources. These are the people, on DFO contract, who augment DFO’s management and enforcement presence on the fishing grounds: monitoring fisheries and counting spawning fish. The importance of these dedicated people is underlined by the fact DFO’s presence on the North Coast has been reduced from 6 vessels in 1994, to 1/3 of a vessel in 2015.
Charter Patrolmen are now DFO’s ‘eyes and ears’ on the salmon grounds, but the number of charter patrolmen has also been cut. There are now only four charter patrolmen covering BC’s North Coast, an area stretching from the Alaskan border to Cape Caution: home to hundreds of salmon streams and salmon populations.
Severe cuts were made to DFO’s stock assessment monitoring on BC’s South Coast as well. Numerous internal sources report DFO’s overall monitoring of Pacific salmon returns is the poorest it has been in their entire history.
What were the outcomes of several key fisheries?
North and Central Coast Sockeye
Nass River sockeye returned below average. Catches were poor. Escapement targets were achieved. Alaskan fishing had a big impact on Nass sockeye: exploitation rates, even in such a poor year, were above average.
The Skeena watershed also saw a poor return of sockeye. According to harvest control rules, DFO should have allowed a commercial harvest rate of 4.8% given the estimated in-season run size of 1.2 million. Instead, the final commercial harvest rate was almost three times as high, at 13%. Some important wild sockeye runs did not get enough spawners back to achieve their minimum conservation thresholds.
Alaska’s commercial harvest of over 230,000 Skeena sockeye was high relative to both the size of the total return, and the Canadian commercial catch of 155,000. The impact of these harvests is disproportionately large on later timed wild Skeena sockeye populations of specific conservation concern, which return during the major Alaskan pink salmon fisheries.
The Pacific Salmon Treaty is currently being renegotiated, but the Alaskan impact on Canadian salmon and steelhead does not appear to be high on Canada’s list of priorities for negotiation.
Rivers and Smith Inlet sockeye both saw solid returns in 2016 following a major, prolonged collapse that began in the early 1990s: a hopeful indication that these important salmon runs are in a rebuilding phase. The gillnet fleet caught almost 80,000 sockeye in Smith Inlet.
North and Central Coast Pinks and Chums
The Nass pink salmon fishery was average with a harvest of just under one million fish. Escapements are estimated to be 216,000, close to the escapement target, but well below the 2000-2015 mean escapement of 520,000. The escapement estimates are much higher than the 70,066 recorded by DFO. But this is not surprising as escapement counts were not completed for many of the major pink streams.
The directed chum catch was 69,126, chum discards (when discard regulations came into effect) are reported to be 55,141. Chum escapements are estimated to be about 64,000, near the target of 60,000, and well above the 2000-2015 mean of 26,000. Again, stream enumerations totaled only 11,000. DFO’s Conservation and Protection officers reported significant non-compliance with regulations that require the seine fleet to return non-target salmon to the water with “the least possible harm.”
The Skeena suffered very poor pink and chum returns in 2016. Inexplicably, DFO permitted a directed pink seine fishery although all indicators suggested the pink return was very poor. Skeena chum abundance remained well below its lower conservation threshold in 2016.
Area 6 (Kitimat area coastal approach waters) saw a reasonable return of both pinks and chums. Pink catches totaled almost 600,000. All chums were required to be discarded. C&P noted significant non-compliance concerns.
Area 7 saw several gillnet and seine assessment fisheries for chum salmon throughout the season. Catches were consistently poor. Chum and pink escapements in Area 7 noted in-season as being poor. In Spiller Channel, DFO approved a fishery attended by 99 gillnets and 27 seines. The total catch was 30,614 chum and 13,405 pink. Chum escapement in Spiller channel was 15,200. Pink escapement was 25,800. Both were well below targets. The Management Escapement Goal for the primary chum system in Spiller Channel (Neekas Creek) is 30,000. According to information provided to the Marine Stewardship Council, fisheries in this area should not proceed until escapements are identified.
Area 8 (Bella Coola area) saw a significant catch of chums in 2016 driven by good hatchery production from the Snootli hatchery. Other co-migrating wild chum populations did not fare well. The escapement for one of Area 8’s key wild chum populations (Kimsquit River), for example, is estimated to be 17,300, well short of its 60,000 target.
There continued to be some concern over Dean River steelhead discards in the gillnet chum fishery. The Dean River steelhead return was well above the 10-year average.
Barkley Sound Sockeye
Barkley Sound saw another successful sockeye fishery in 2016 with total catches exceeding 660,000 (37k FSC, 560k commercial, and 54k recreational). Spawning goals were achieved for Somass sockeye. Escapements for Henderson sockeye were below the upper biological benchmark, but improved over 2015.
The differential productivity between Henderson and Somass sockeye continues to pose management challenges. A much poorer return is expected in 2017.
Fraser River Chinook
Fraser River chinook returns in 2016 were very poor. None of the monitored populations met their escapement goals. This is a continuation of recent trends in poor abundance for stream-type chinook (those populations spending two years in freshwater before migrating to sea). Aside from First Nations harvests for food, social, and ceremonial purposes, the biggest harvester of Fraser River stream-type chinook salmon is the recreational sector.
DFO is hesitating in further restricting recreational catch. Meanwhile, it is recognized Fraser chinooks are a critical food source for endangered South Coast resident killer whales. The Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion will increase cumulative impacts on endangered killer whales.
Further, First Nation harvests, which are constitutionally protected and have first right of access after conservation, were severely curtailed. Difficult choices need to be made if Fraser chinooks are to be rebuilt in the face of these competing demands. DFO is engaged in two separate processes to address the issue, but has so far avoided making any changes to its management strategy. Three First Nations have taken DFO to court over this matter.
Fraser River Coho
Interior Fraser coho populations have declined dramatically since the 1980s. Final escapement estimates for 2016 will not be available until early 2017, but will likely be between 40,000 and 50,000. This compares with 59,000 in the brood (or parental) year, and last year’s escapement of 12,400. This year’s escapement will be above both the short and long-term recovery objectives. This improvement was partly due to the lack of fisheries in 2016 for Fraser River sockeye or pink salmon; these fisheries incidentally kill coho as bycatch. Recreational fisheries were managed to limit their impacts on Fraser coho.
Fraser River sockeye
The 2016 sockeye return was the worst in history. The Pacific Salmon Commission forecasted a Fraser River sockeye return of 2.2 million, but only 630,000 can be accounted for in post-season escapement and catch. The total escapement, again the lowest recorded, was just under 500,000 sockeye.
The pre-season allowable exploitation rates ranged from 10% to 20%, depending on the run-timing group. The actual exploitation rates ranged from 12.5% to 29%. There were no Canadian commercial fisheries in 2016, other than test fisheries.
As usual, the summary data provided by DFO is not very helpful in understanding what occurred across the vast Fraser watershed, or what it meant for individual populations.
There is no one population called Fraser sockeye. Fraser sockeye are comprised of numerous (up to 44) genetically distinct sockeye populations that have evolved over tens of thousands of years in concert with their unique environments.
The table below lists key populations within each run-timing group, their location in the watershed, their Wild Salmon Policy status, 2016 escapement, and their 2016 escapement relative to their cycle average (2016, 2012, 2008, 2004, 2000….), and their brood year (2014 return).
Neither their return relative to cycle average, or brood year, is a clear measure of their current status relative to their productive capacity, as both measures incorporate a troubling decline in productivity across many Fraser sockeye populations over the past several generations.
Finally, while there were many media reports of the poor migration conditions faced by these populations in the summer of 2016, this did not seem to be a significant contributor to the poor escapement. Both in-river mortality and pre-spawn mortality were within what would be expected.
Aggregating genetically distinct populations into run-timing groups obscures the fact that some populations did very poorly in 2016, continuing a concerning trend in abundance for several interior sockeye runs. For instance, Bowron sockeye, which were predicted to return at 3,200, already well below its lower Wild Salmon Policy benchmark of 4,000, had a final escapement of only 143 fish.
Most other interior early summer Fraser sockeye runs also did poorly relative to their Wild Salmon Policy benchmarks. The Early Summer run timing group appeared to do as well as it did (and it was still only 53% of forecast) mostly because two of the sockeye returns that make up this aggregate did very well: Pitt and Chilliwack.
Fraser River steelhead
Steelhead returns to the Thompson River again hit a record low. Returns in 2015 were estimated to be 430 fish. The 2016 return is expected to be 380, both are well below the minimum conservation threshold.
Steelhead run timing overlaps with South Coast chum fisheries, which were intense in 2016 owing to the large chum return. Mixed stock fisheries, such as Johnstone Strait gillnet and seine, Nitinat gillnet and seine, and Fraser River gillnet and beach seine fisheries all intercept Thompson River steelhead.
There was no independent catch reporting or compliance monitoring programs in place to monitor steelhead impacts during the major chum fisheries that took place in 2016.
C&P post-season reports indicate significant non-compliance in some recreational and commercial fisheries. But because there is no independent evidence of steelhead encounters, or credible mortality studies; it is unclear what impact non-compliance may have had on steelhead returns.
South Coast Chums
The South Coast chum catch exceeded 2.75 million, far exceeding any recent year. Escapement targets were achieved, or exceeded, in most monitored systems. Managers continued to limit mixed stock harvests in Johnstone Straits, focusing effort into terminal harvest opportunities (closer to river mouths). Even at this, catches in Johnstone Straits were the highest in recent memory. After dismal fishing opportunities across the coast throughout most of the fishing season, the 2016 chum fishery was the savior of most commercial net fishermen’s seasons.
While all chum fisheries are required to release steelhead and coho unharmed; there was no fishery independent monitoring (monitoring reports on encounters and compliance completed by observers other than the fishermen themselves). C&P reported disturbing levels of non-compliance in several fisheries.
Therefore, there are no defensible estimates of the impacts of the commercial fishery on Thompson steelhead or interior Fraser coho. C&P also noted some processors were not recording coho illegally retained.
Marine and freshwater environmental conditions from 2013 through 2016 makes it even more problematic than usual to forecast salmon returns for 2017. There is a consensus of expert opinion that Skeena sockeye, Barkley Sound sockeye, and Fraser chinooks will return at very low levels relative to their management objectives.
There is also a concern, Fraser pinks, due to poor fry output, may return at lower levels than have been observed in recent years. Other than this, there is considerable uncertainty.
In terms of management and enforcement, there is little evidence the Department plans any meaningful changes in 2017.