Southern BC Coho salmon in 2016

Never mind the storied tales of the not so distant past, of bluebacks in abundance in April and May, in the early 21st century coho season around the inner south coast of BC now doesn’t begin until June 1st and for hatchery origin fish only. And this assumes that there are some around to catch – sadly what was once a certainty in the angling calendar has gone the way of the dodo, with any early season encounters with coho now something to be remarked upon.

With certain exceptions, notably inside the surf line on WCVI and in upper Johnstone Strait, much more often than not over the past two decades fishermen of all gear types have not been allowed to retain wild coho around SBC and, despite an improving trend over several years beginning around 2010, more recently the well-being of the area coho stock has declined once again. Rather than the beginning of a renewed fishery focus the allowed retention of a small number of wild coho in 2014 must now unfortunately be seen as an exception.

Although it wasn’t known until very late in the year it is understood now that the most recent decline had already commenced by 2014 and became all too obvious a year later. In 2015 the benchmark Interior Fraser River coho stock returned at somewhere between 20 and 25% of the 2012 broodyear (57,000 fish), in spite of almost no commercial fishing for other salmon species and wild coho retention, in the Strait of Georgia at 1/angler/day, that didn’t start until mid-September when IFR coho are thought to have cleared the area.

Obviously fishing mortality wasn’t the cause of this decline but that gives no sense of comfort when the lower escapement target is 20,000 coho and the preferred level is 40,000 fish or better, to maximize continued genetic diversity across the five main sub-populations. And it wasn’t just the interior coho stock aggregate that declined in 2015, many coastal stocks fared poorly as well. Generally speaking the further north a coho originates from the greater the chance of survival but the previously healthy stock from the Keogh River near Port McNeill declined precipitously last year to the lowest level since 1998 and is likely an indicator of coho strength across NE Vancouver Island and the adjacent mainland.

One of the puzzles facing salmon stock assessment staff in southern BC is why over the past decade or more coho in much of Washington state have been far more robust than those this side of the 49th parallel. It just never made much sense given the far higher allowed all-fishery exploitation rate, much larger human population size and consequently greater stresses on the freshwater habitat for coho.

Sadly US coho stocks declined significantly in 2015 and the 2016 forecast is so low all marine salmon fisheries were closed in Puget Sound earlier this year as the managing parties could not agree how best to share very small numbers of allowable mortalities in the months ahead. The most recent news is that agreement has now been reached and limited recreational fisheries for hatchery origin chinook will take place this summer but coho fishing for the most part, even for hatchery fish, will remain closed this season.

Since the mid-1990’s marine conditions in most years have been unfavourable for young coho survival in the Strait of Georgia and while this trend is evidently continuing the situation for coho is being compounded by deteriorating conditions in freshwater. Simply put prolonged dry spells are resulting in the drying up of all the many small creeks so beloved by coho – no water, no fish. Even where water continues to flow in many cases it is too warm to support much in the way of salmonid life resulting in far fewer coho smolts migrating to sea. Diminished coho survival in both their freshwater and marine habitats is Exhibit A in demonstrating the negative consequences of climate change on salmon abundance.

Against this background for 2016 DFO has reverted to the highly precautionary management regime that was in place between 1998 and 2013 around SBC, with an allowable all fishery exploitation rate (ER) in a range of between 3 – 5% on the Interior Fraser coho stock. Because all coho stocks co-mingle in marine waters until migration towards freshwater sets in these measures will benefit all coho present in the marine waters of SBC equally.

For anglers the practical expression of this means that unless otherwise allowed (e.g. inside the WCVI surf line, upper Johnstone Strait and several other smaller time and area exceptions) there will be no wild coho retention this year in SBC, only hatchery origin fish identified by a missing adipose fin may be kept. Expect a fisheries notice to this effect any day now on the DFO website

(www.pac.dfo-mpo.gc.ca).

In the meantime, quite honestly if you care about coho then pray for rain, their survival into the 2018 fishing season depends on some precipitation falling much sooner than later. Not a popular consideration for many I’m sure but there’s no escaping this reality and for many juvenile coho the arrival of rain, or not, will literally be the difference between life and death.