Salmon returns and fishing in BC: Highlights from the 2018 season
Overall, last year (2018) was another dismal one for B.C.’s wild salmon. All along our coast, and across the province, formerly abundant wild salmon runs came back in desperately low numbers, leading to unprecedented fishing closures. Thankfully, a few wild runs came back in numbers large enough to feed wildlife and allow some modest fishing.
Because so many wild salmon populations are at historically-low levels of abundance, the few fisheries allowed often impacted these populations declared to be endangered or threatened. Examples include West Coast Vancouver Island’s recreational fisheries’ impacts on endangered Fraser River stream-type chinook populations and the Fraser River commercial sockeye fisheries’ impact on Cultus Lake sockeye. In those situations, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) must decide between conservation and fishing. And despite federal policies that make conservation the highest priority, DFO operates as though their primary mandate is to create fishing opportunities. As fisheries, over time, reduce numbers of endangered and threatened wild salmon, choosing fishing over conservation becomes easier for DFO to justify.
Another consequence of attempting to have fisheries on a few more abundant populations in a sea of endangered and threatened ones, is the growing use of catch and release fisheries. Unfortunately, DFO refuses to employ its own science to estimate how many of the released salmon survive to spawn. This can lead to underestimating fishing mortality, which in turn, can signal to managers that fisheries impacting endangered or threatened populations do not need to be reduced. DFO’s practice of not putting conservation first, in contravention of their own policies, can lead to a downward spiral of inappropriate decisions from which some salmon populations may never recover.
This recap is not exhaustive. We are experts with a keen interest in conserving and rebuilding B.C.’s wild salmon but we are not Fisheries and Oceans Canada. If you see an important error or omission, please let us know. Also let us know if you want to get involved and help us stand up for B.C. salmon.
Haida Gwaii continued its trend of poor returns of pink and chum, with no harvestable surplus available last season for either species. There was a time, up until the early 1990s, when Haida Gwaii could be expected to support known-stock chum fisheries in the fall.
North Coast recreational and commercial hook and line (chinook and coho): Haida Gwaii and Dixon Entrance
These fisheries catch a broad mix of chinook and coho populations. The North Coast commercial troll fleet retained just over 70,000 chinook of the 86,000 total allowable catch. The fleet released another 22,000 chinook. Of this, 20.6% were South Thompson chinook. South Thompson chinook spawning escapements (the number of fish that “escape” fishing and predators and make it back to the spawning grounds) were well below objectives. The Area F (operates mostly in Dixon Entrance north of Haida Gwaii) troll fleet also caught about 170,000 coho in a fishery that continued through to late summer. Coho catch per unit effort was reported to be poor throughout the season. Northern coho escapements were very poor. Reports are that some escapements were similar to what was seen in the mid-90s ‘coho crisis’.
The North Coast recreational fishery is reported to have retained 36,700 chinook, in line with the 37,400 chinook available to them. Unlike the commercial fleet, the recreational fleet’s catch is not verified by third party monitors. It appears they released a similar number but the data were unavailable at the time of writing. There is no defensible estimate, compliant with DFO’s scientific guidance, on what proportion of the released chinook survived through to spawning. The recreational coho catch was reported to be around 44,000. Of significant controversy in many inland communities was the fact that these marine recreational fisheries in the approach waters of the Skeena and Nass Rivers remained open while the recreational fisheries on these rivers were closed due to conservation concerns for chinook.
The Fisheries Minister said there would be a 25-35% reduction in harvest rates for Nass and Skeena chinook. This was achieved for Nass chinook but not for Skeena chinook. The reason being, Skeena First Nations, who curtailed their access to Skeena sockeye for food due to concerns over the expected size of the Skeena sockeye return, turned to Skeena chinook for food.
Area 3 (Portland Canal and Nass River)
Returns were mixed but commercial catches for all species were very poor. Pink catches were only 98,748. Pink spawning escapements were mixed, but overall Area 3 fell short of its management goal.
Area 3 chum spawning escapements remained poor, well below their management goal. Area 3 chums have shown a modest increasing trend since 2011. But this trend is driven by the good 2018 return. The 2018 return may have been an anomaly driven by low Alaskan interceptions.
Chinook escapements were better than 2017 and just below the 2012-2016 average.
Coho returns were poor.
Area 4 (Skeena River)
While Skeena sockeye returns were below average; they were much better than predicted pre-season or estimated in-season. The pre-season prediction was for around 600,000, in-season estimates were 1.5 million, and the final count is 1.7 million. This is still a half million below an average Skeena sockeye return, but welcome news all the same after years of poor returns. Because of the expected low returns and in-season expectations, the marine mixed-stock harvest was less than it could have been. Fortunately, the Lake Babine Nation has been aggressively developing their known-stock commercial fishery in Babine Lake. They were therefore able to harvest all the available commercial sockeye. This fishery avoids the so-called ‘trade-off’ between commercial catch and conservation. Both were achieved. The final commercial catch was 107,000 harvested in the marine mixed-stock fishery and just over 200,000 taken by the Lake Babine Nation’s fishing company: Talok Fisheries LP. Note, however, the marine mixed stock fishery still had an impact on Lake Babine wild returns which returned well below escapement targets.
Skeena pink returns continue to be terrible. They are now only a fraction of their escapement goal. It is almost inconceivable, but DFO continued to allow fisheries on this depleted population.
Skeena chum continue a trend of being orders of magnitude below their management goal.
For the first time in history, recreational fishing was closed for Skeena River chinook for the entire season, in response to conservation concerns, while it remained open in the coastal approach waters. This discrepancy in management approaches caused outrage among recreational fisheries along the Skeena River. The escapement of Skeena River chinook was better than 2017 (33,802 vs. 18,480) but lower than the 2012-2016 average of 40,384. The 2012-2016 period captures the beginning of the recent downward trend in Skeena chinook so one has to be wary of this comparison.
Skeena coho escapements were very poor, rivalling the escapements seen in the ‘coho crisis’ of the mid-1990s. Despite the alarmingly low abundance and poor fishing, DFO kept the recreational coho fishery open on the Skeena and in its coastal approach waters.
Skeena River steelhead returns were good. At the beginning of the run, test fishing reports indicated it was the largest return on record, but test fishing dropped off as the season progressed, and the BC Fish and Wildlife Department’s final in-season report put the run at slightly above the long term average. Despite the good return, the multimillion dollar recreational catch-and-release fishery for Skeena River steelhead was severely hampered by record-setting drought conditions. Water levels were so low in the Skeena and many of its world-famous tributaries that steelhead were often difficult or impossible to catch.
Areas 5 and 6 (Kitkatla, Douglas Channel, Princess Royal Island)
The pink salmon return was the lowest on record. There were no fisheries.
The chum escapement was poor, well below the management goal.
Coho returns are said to be relatively poor.
Other than the excellent information provided by DFO Guardian, Stan Hutchings, in the northern part of Area 6, there is a very low level of monitoring effort in Areas 5 and 6, severely hampering DFO’s ability to safely manage fisheries in this region.
Area 7 (Bella Bella area)
Pink and chum escapements were very poor relative to escapement targets. There were no commercial fisheries. There is little information on coho.
Area 8 (Namu, Bella Coola)
The pink escapement target is just under 1.5 million. 2018 escapements were 66,500. The commercial catch was 49,000.
Most wild chum escapements fell short of target. The target escapement for the area (the enhanced Bella Coola River comprises the largest part of this target) is 267,000. The escapement in 2018 was 215,000, of which over half returned to the Bella Coola River (where the hatchery is located). The commercial catch was 476,000. There were 14 gillnet openings and 7 seine openings totalling 1,370 gillnet vessel days and 222 seine vessel days.
The Marine Stewardship Certification (MSC) Annual Surveillance Audit determined the management of Area 8 is inconsistent with MSC requirements for a sustainably-managed fishery. The Area 8 fishery is driven by returns to the Snootli Creek hatchery well up inside Area 8. Fisheries are often prosecuted days away (at a salmon’s pace) from the hatchery. The result is other salmon populations mixed with the enhanced chums can be overharvested relative to their escapement goals. This is particularly true for wild pink and chum populations.
Chinook escapements were below target. There is no information on coho escapements at the time of writing.
Areas 9 and 10 (Rivers and Smiths Inlets)
There were no commercial fisheries in the area. There are several recreational lodges operating in the area.
The poor monitoring in the two areas means there are very few data that can be relied upon by managers, except maybe for Rivers Inlet sockeye. The reported escapements were well below targets.
Areas 11 – 28 (East Coast Vancouver Island, Port Hardy to Ladysmith, including the Sunshine Coast, all species except Fraser sockeye)
The only commercial fisheries in these areas were for fall chums.
Nimpkish sockeye saw an above average return continuing a recent positive trend.
The Sakinaw sockeye return totaled three adults. This stock no longer sustains itself. It is functionally extirpated after being refused listing under Canada’s Species at Risk Act by Environment Minister Stephane Dion in 2004.
Johnstone Strait pink returns were poor, for this, their dominant year. But some showed improvement over 2017. This is an off-year for Gulf of Georgia pink salmon, and low returns were reported.
Johnstone Strait chinook streams are poorly monitored. Low escapements are reported for the few streams that do have some level of monitoring. The Strait of Georgia saw a stronger return of chinook this year relative to recent years. The Cowichan River is particularly notable, seeing an escapement of 14,500 compared to its target escapement of 6,500. This is a stream with a large pinniped population, where smolts enter the same waters that other South Coast chinook smolts find so challenging, yet is bucking the trend seen for most other Salish Sea chinook populations. There has been a significant investment in habitat restoration in the Cowichan. It is too early to draw a direct line between this investment and the Cowichan’s recent chinook returns, but it is intriguing.
Johnstone Strait saw low coho returns.
The Strait of Georgia saw encouraging coho returns in 2018. Escapements are still below target. The future remains uncertain as the 2018 return came after an anomalously large return of jacks (early-returning males) in 2017. The proportion of jacks in 2018 was average.
Chum returns varied north to south. Most chum escapements above Nanaimo River were poor. However, Nanaimo, Cowichan, and Goldstream returns supported commercial fisheries.
A total of 187,000 chum were harvested commercially in 2018: just over 50,000 in the mixed-stock Johnstone Strait fishery. About 140,000 chum (mostly from the enhanced Nanaimo River) were caught in commercial known-stock fisheries.
Reports are that the Howe Sound area saw poor pink and chum returns.
The East Coast Vancouver Island (ECVI) recreational fishery saw 28,000 coho retained and 88,000 released. There were 77,000 chinooks retained and 126,000 released. There are no reliable data on the proportion of releases that survived to spawn as both fisheries are not compliant with the Strategic Framework for Fishery Monitoring and Catch Reporting or DFO’s science guidance on estimating fishery related incidental mortality.
Areas 19 – 27 (West Coast Vancouver Island, Victoria to Winter Harbour)
The Barkley Sound sockeye return was very low. Great Central Lake did not meet escapement targets. Henderson Lake continued to experience poor returns. There were no commercial fisheries in 2018. The commercial catch was around 70,000.
West Coast Vancouver Island (WCVI) chinook returns remained low, with northern Vancouver Island doing a little better than the south. A more recent concern is the amount of hatchery straying. It appears strays from hatcheries may be leading to an overestimation of wild chinook escapements. There were modest, but valuable, terminal enhanced chinook harvests totalling around 43,000.
Recreational chinook harvests were 108,559 retained and 124,137 released. As for the East Coast of Vancouver Island (ECVI), the proportion of releases that survived to spawn is unknown as the fisheries are compliant neither with Strategic Framework for Fishery Monitoring and Catch Reporting nor DFO’s science guidance on estimating fishery related incidental mortality . Although the Minister promised a 25-35% reduction in the harvest of chinook stocks of concern, recreational effort and catch both increased along WCVI. Impacts on stocks of concern are unknown at the time of writing, but escapements of Fraser River chinook (which migrate through these fisheries) were very low in 2018, and several populations were recently listed as endangered and threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC)
Wild chum escapements in 2018 remained below their upper biological benchmarks. The enhanced Nitinat return was around 155,000, lower than its lower management reference point of 225,000. There were modest exploratory commercial chum fisheries in 2018. The total catch was less 35,000.
Coho escapements were at about historic levels. This was thought to be due to the reduced fishing levels experienced by these populations. Hence, while escapements were good, production is not. Hence, low harvest levels will need to be maintained.
The status of Fraser River salmon is best captured by this chart.
The Fraser River sockeye return was predicted to be around 14,000,000. The final return will be around 10 million once the final late-run escapement escapements become available. This continues a downward trend in this cycle year since its recent high in 2010.
Late-run sockeye escapements (the iconic Adams River sockeye is part of this group of sockeye populations) are lower than estimated in-season. The difference between what managers estimated were expecting to spawn, and the number of sockeye that eventually did spawn, was 350,000.
The total catch of Fraser sockeye was just over 5.8 million. Good prices through much of this season made this a successful year for most South coast net fishermen.
Cultus Lake sockeye were, by design, overharvested in 2018. The wild proportion of this population is now flirting with extirpation.
Fraser River chinook escapements were dismal with all populations below their escapement goal, most significantly below. In December, 2018, seven Fraser River chinook populations were classified as “endangered” by COSEWIC, with four more populations classified as “threatened”, and one as “special concern.”
Coho escapements are not yet available but are expected to have continued recent trends of low abundance. Interior Fraser River coho continued to be designated as “endangered” by COSEWIC.
Fraser River chum returned below their escapement goal of 800,000. There were no directed commercial fisheries, but significant food, social and ceremonial fishing by First Nations.
Fraser River steelhead (Thompson and Chilcotin River populations) once again returned well below their extreme conservation concern level. They were designated as “endangered” by COSEWIC in February 2018 and are under consideration for emergency listing under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. This will be the first time the current federal government will face a SARA listing decision for a salmon species. Fisheries targeting late-returning Fraser River chum salmon are the only significant sources of mortality for these endangered steelhead that can be immediately mitigated. DFO was recently rebuked by B.C.’s Deputy Minister of Environment for misrepresenting peer-reviewed consensus-based science advice going to the federal Minister of Environment, Catherine McKenna, who will be charged with the decision on whether or not to protect these endangered steelhead. DFO’s manipulations of the science advice removed focus from fishing as the primary reducible impact on Thompson and Chilcotin River steelhead.
Greg Taylor has worked in the B.C. seafood industry for over 30 years. Until recently he was Vice-President of Fisheries Management for Ocean Fisheries. During his career, he has chaired several industry associations and boards, and was Vice-President of Fisheries Management for Ocean Fisheries. Greg has also worked closely with the Gitxsan and Lake Babine Nations to develop inland commercial fisheries on the Skeena. Throughout his career, Greg has taken an active interest in developing sustainable salmon fisheries, working with First Nations, and encouraging selective harvesting practices.