July Changes and Initiatives

Around the southern BC coast a number of seasonal regulations came into effect throughout the month headed by – finally – the release on July 20 of the separate Salmon Integrated Fishing Management Plans for southern and northern BC, by far the latest date on record. Not bad for a document that in theory covers fisheries commencing June 1! It might be a record size as well, with the Southern IFMP clocking in at 375 pages long, should anybody be looking for some light bedtime reading.

On NWVI, the outer coast of Vancouver Island above Estevan Point, seasonal regulations along and inside the surfline came into effect July 15 intended to lower the harvest rate on larger, mostly female, chinook homing to local rivers. Despite the strong forecast of chinook to the three main enhanced river systems (Stamp, Conuma and Nitinat) for this season, said to be the highest since the early 1980’s, chinook stocks in the more numerous smaller and frequently unenhanced river systems across WCVI remain depressed. Because of slightly later run-timing characteristics for chinook originating from SWVI rivers, similar seasonal changes will come into effect on August 1 below Estevan Point.

The big change for 2016 is the abandonment of the maximum size limit regulation, which has been a fixture of these seasonal restrictions for the past 15 years or so. The new management approach is the imposition of extensive finfish closures, areas in which no hook and line fishing is allowed, designed to act as sanctuary areas. These were developed and agreed to by a partnership of DFO staff, local recreational interests represented via the Sport Fishing Advisory Board and local First Nations. Anglers planning on fishing in any of these WCVI areas should make themselves familiar with the boundaries of the finfish closures – fortunately this is easy to do before even leaving home with detailed maps easily available on-line on the DFO website at:
http://www.pac.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/fm-gp/rec/map-carte-eng.asp

It will be interesting to see how this new management approach has worked; any post-season review will be looking closely at both how actual chinook returns compared with pre or in-season expectations and what the compliance record by the recreational fishery is. Regrettably the enforcement budget is pitifully small compared with the actual need and the compliance record by some anglers with the previous management regime was poor, a combination almost guaranteed to lead to abuses.

In addition, my own view is that DFO never did an adequate job of explaining the biological rational for the 77 cm/31 inch maximum size limit and so numerous anglers and – shamefully for supposed professionals – some guides thought it was just a number pulled out of a hat. This combination of circumstances over the years created the need for a different, more simplistic approach and so, as always, time will tell.

In the Campbell River area two different seasonal changes also came into effect on July 15, similarly presenting visiting anglers with the need to familiarize themselves with the boundaries and other requirements. One is the annual finfish closure around Cape Mudge on the southwestern corner of Quadra Island, a popular and productive area for chinook fishing. This seasonal restriction, in place for most of the past 30 plus years, is designed to lower the harvest rate on what is known as the LGS chinook stock aggregate, most particularly those fish from the Cowichan River.

How well this works is of course unknown in absolute terms but I think finfish closures should be judged more effective than the chinook non-retention time and area restrictions that are used elsewhere and form the other part of this broader Strait of Georgia wide conservation initiative. One thing is certain, DFO enforcement staff prefer finfish closures to other less restrictive measures as they are easy to gauge compliance with.

The good news is that the Cowichan River chinook stock continues to rebuild from the lows of nearly a decade ago, with the final assessment of the 2015 return showing almost 6,000 adult chinook, not far off the escapement target of 6,500 fish. Hopefully the trend will continue and in not so many years we’ll see an easing of the various restrictions.

The other seasonal restriction that came into effect concerns what is known as the Campbell River Special Management Zone, requirements for which are printed on every tidalwaters recreational fishing license because they form what is known as “conditions of license”. Too much history as to how it came to be structured that way to go into now but the intent is to sustain the historic and now unique rowboat fishery for the Tyee Club (www.tyeeclub.org), especially in years of low returns.

Switching topics from management to actual catches, recently the first South Coast Creel Survey bulletin of the summer season was released. Once again the first impression for me is the large areas that weren’t surveyed in the month of June. Only the northwest quadrant of the Strait of Georgia, areas 13 and 14, were surveyed and neither were areas 25 and 26 on NWVI. This is simply due to budget constraints but it is frustrating to be unable to describe a true picture of both effort and catch on a large recreational fishery in one of the most productive months of the year.

Perhaps not surprisingly both effort and chinook catch are down from last year, not surprising in the sense that, for example, in 2015 area 13 recorded the highest chinook catch since 1989. In both areas 13 and 14 retained chinook and effort (boat trip) numbers this year are between about a third and half of the June 2015 levels, and obviously word of the former drives the latter category – more fish, more effort and vice versa. In actual fact this years numbers are similar to the 5-year rolling average for both categories which, considering they include last years high numbers, mean that chinook fishing this June was productive by past standards much of the time. The devil is in the details but so far it has been good summer for fishing on the inside.

What is missing in the June creel survey is a sense of the inside coho fishing this summer, which started in the lower Strait of Georgia in mid-June and has to some degree worked its way up the strait since. Having area 17, either side of Nanaimo, included would have made for interesting reading; I hope to have a look at coho in 2016 in my next column.