BC’s commercial salmon fisheries as we know them today took shape in the late 1800s and early 1900s when dozens of canneries were constructed along the BC coast. Feeding these canneries’ voracious appetites for fish required large fishing fleets and large catches, mostly in coastal “mixed-stock” fisheries that harvested salmon from large and small populations (also called “stocks”) indiscriminately. While the larger populations often could sustain the high harvest rates, smaller populations could not, and many are now extinct. Many more are severely depleted and in need of rebuilding.
The catching power of the commercial fleet grew throughout the 20th century, until the federal government began retiring fishing licenses in the early 90s. While the catching power of the commercial fleet is still formidable and excessive, the economic viability of the BC’s commercial salmon industry is now much diminished from its heyday in decades past. Poor ocean survival, habitat destruction, and a century of overfishing have resulted in low returns to most rivers; harvest rates have been reduced in order to curb overfishing and rebuild at-risk salmon populations; market competition with farmed salmon has reduced the prices paid to fishermen for wild-caught salmon; and there has been a high degree of corporate concentration of ownership and control of the industry.
But it is not all doom and gloom. On rivers and lakes across the province, aboriginal fisheries that were outlawed and destroyed at the turn of the last century to make way for the industrial fishery are being revived, allowing for truly sustainable “terminal” and “selective” fisheries that can target fish from healthy populations while leaving fish from depleted populations to spawn and rebuild. And the slow but encouraging introduction of quota-based salmon fisheries may provide better management control though disincentives for overfishing. Overfishing and poor fisheries management practices are still a problem for salmon in BC, but the tide is slowly turning.
You can learn more about salmon and water issues using Watershed Watch’s Fraser Basin LiveMap: An Interactive Salmon and Water Atlas. This web-based tool allows users to explore Fraser waterways and salmon populations, the threats they face, and their current status and future prospects. The LiveMap includes official government data sets on historic water flows, salmon returns, water temperature, and other important factors that affect the aquatic ecosystems that make up the Fraser River watershed.