Important decisions ahead.

Notwithstanding the generally strong returns of chinook salmon to Vancouver Island rivers this past fall there are a growing number of significant and sometimes overlapping issues that will confront the management of the recreational fishery around southern BC in the year(s) ahead. And this is not to suggest that commercial salmon fisheries where they exist will not face the same challenges to maintaining opportunity, for in some respects they face greater jeopardy, around sockeye management for example.

By late 2017 it has become clear that almost all salmon stocks originating from the Fraser River watershed upstream of the Hell’s Gate canyon have experienced significantly reduced returns, both compared to long-term averages and the broodyear. “Train wreck” is one descriptive phrase I’ve heard used by stock assessment staff working in the interior of the province. About the only “OK but not great” return was for the South Thompson summer-run, ocean-type chinook stock – at 85,000 fish it is well above the long term average but still 30% lower than the 2013 dominant broodyear. As well, these fish are examples of the declining size at age phenomena, estimated to be 20% smaller on average than 20 years ago, with important implications for the fecundity (eggs per female) of the stock – ultimately it’s all about numbers of eggs in the gravel.

As an aside, the Canadian phrase “ocean-type” a bit confusingly refers to those chinook salmon with a fairly minimal freshwater life history after emergence from the gravel, in that they migrate to saltwater in the spring or early summer following their birth the previous fall. “Stream-type” chinook are those that spend an entire additional year in freshwater, as with coho, meaning they have to survive what is becoming in this time of climate change an increasingly hazardous summer period. In the US the descriptors of fry or yearling migrant are used for each type respectively.

After decades of near invisibility in the mainstream media steelhead have started generating coverage, predictably for all the wrong reasons. The late summer-run steelhead to the interior, most notably to the Thompson River but also to other river systems such as the Chilcotin, have become so low in number that the risk of extinction is all too real. Compared to other members of the salmonid family around the North Pacific Ocean these never terribly numerous fish have over the past decade had all the odds increasingly stacked against them. As salmonids with a lengthy freshwater life history, sometimes covering two summers not just one, the challenges of making it to sea are considerable. Once there they become open ocean far migrants for several years, exposed recently to a hostile, unfertile environment thanks to the so-called warm blob followed by an El Nino event. Finally, the survivors have the misfortune to arrive on the southern BC coast just as commercial fisheries for the far more numerous chum salmon begin, both in the marine approach areas and in the lower Fraser River itself. Although steelhead are not allowed to be kept they are encountered, with no certainty of survival after release, especially if suffering from repeat captures.

The best estimate of the 2017 Thompson River steelhead return is less than 200 fish, the Chilcotin return maybe half as many, down from ten or more times as many in each river system a dozen years ago. Advocates for these special fish, almost entirely anglers, have become beyond frustrated by the inaction of both the federal and provincial governments for failing to address this situation. This failure will likely come back to haunt both decision makers and fishermen of all kinds in ways that cannot be entirely predicted as it looks like the Interior Fraser steelhead stock aggregate will begin the process for listing under Canada’s Species At Risk Act (SARA). Should this be achieved it places real constraints on any activity posing risk to the species of concern, which in this case could range from limiting water extraction for agricultural purposes to eliminating non-selective fisheries for other species of salmon.

Broadly speaking a listing action is a two-step process starting with the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. This committee (COSEWIC) is an at-arms-length from government body made up of experts in many diverse specialties, not only of the animals themselves but of their habitats and environments, which after a review of a candidate critter makes a recommendation to list under SARA, or not as the case maybe. If so the relevant government department then has to decide whether to follow the committee’s advice or prepare and explain the reasons for not proceeding.

Interior Fraser coho are one salmon stock that the government chose not to list, citing the sweeping changes to fisheries management (i.e. wide scale non-retention of wild coho for many years) among other reasons. IFR coho have been re-classified from Endangered to the less serious Threatened category but recovery is far from achieved and the decision will be reviewed over the next two years. More importantly several new salmon stock aggregates will be considered by COSEWIC at the same time, including a number of Fraser sockeye stocks and all chinook entering the sea south of Cape Caution, a large undertaking with even larger implications for the management of fisheries.

One of the chinook stocks that will undergo this critical assessment are the Fraser stream-type chinook, an aggregate of some 50+ individual stocks comprising of two run-timing groups (spring and summer) and two dominant age classes at maturity (4 and 5 years old). Like steelhead they are open ocean migrants and with the same marine survival trajectory, largely downward. After making landfall the majority of these fish head for the Fraser via Juan de Fuca Strait between May and mid-July and by wretched coincidence are the preferred early summer food source for the already SARA listed (Endangered) Southern Resident Killer Whale population. Readers will likely have heard or read about the present federal government’s determination to take whatever measures are necessary to save and restore SRKW’s, so you can see where this issue might be going …

Under pressure from First Nations and their green NGO allies a year ago DFO initiated a review of its management of Fraser stream-type chinook. Other than deciding on terms of reference and assembling reference material the review hasn’t proceeded very far, with no dialogue yet with stakeholder interests, for example the recreational fishery. Largely it’s a case of too few chinook specialist staff and too many competing demands for their time, but eventually this review will get to the meat of the matter.

All this is to say that there are some important decisions to be made over the next few months and depending upon the outcomes the recreational fishery in some parts of southern BC could look quite different from the way it does now.