“Remember that time when Chinook used to fill this river…”

I hope there comes a time when we start to hear good news about salmon in British Columbia… unfortunately, there are a lot of not so good stories — and worse yet, stories of runs sinking towards being just that… stories:

“Remember that time when Chinook used to fill this river…”

The week before last I had a post asking whether Fisheries and Oceans was breaking their own laws. Pre-season salmon run forecasts for this coming season are out — and the story is disheartening.

Not just disheartening but incredibly frustrating. The frustration stems from the fact that government ministries with the legislated mandate to ensure things like this don’t happen appear to sit on their collective hands (or are too busy fingering their Blackberries). The endings of some of these stories are written in plain view– even in some of the most obscure — and most simple — charts and graphs.

Like this one from the Fisheries and Oceans “Chinook Salmon Conservation and Proposed Management Approach for 2010” . This is a graph of survival rates and fishing (exploitation) rates of one particular Chinook stock in the Fraser River watershed that generally return to spawn as four year olds. This stock returns largely to the Nicola River (in the Thompson River watershed). It is referred to as the Spring 42 run. The small “2” referring to the identifier for this unique sub-population. The baby fish from these runs spend about a year in the freshwater before heading out to the ocean. 

Along the left hand side is the approximate survival rate of this population. This is also demonstrated by the vertical bars.

Along the right side is the exploitation (or fishing) rate. This is represented by the black dots and horizontal black line.

Clearly survival rates fell apart between 1999 and 2000 from somewhere near 9% to about 1%. This is an incredible drop in survival meaning less and less adult salmon returning in comparison to how many of their parents successfully spawned. Yet, fishing pressures on these stocks continued to take over 30% of the returning adults — going as high as 50% in 2003 (one of the lowest years of productivity).

This graph tells an ugly story. The ugliest part of the story is that, according to Fisheries and Oceans this “data” was not available until 2009.

Why? Is all I can really ask. Is this not the ministry responsible for ensuring these things don’t happen?

In terms of actual run size, in recent years such as the late 1990s and early 2000s this run has been close to 20,000 spawners. However, since 2005 this run has only been a few thousand. Last year it was less than 1000 — and yet fishing rates on this Chinook stock remain in the 20-30% range.

Productivity of this stock suggests that over the last few years there isn’t even a one-to-one survival rate — meaning the run is not even replacing itself. As I’ve said in other posts — this is a death spiral. And yet fisheries remain open.

Various genetic tests done in test fisheries suggest this stock starts migrating into the Fraser River now – March – through April, May with a peak in June and July; tapering off by August.

Fisheries and Oceans estimates for this stock, in the coming year, are dismal — Status category #1 meaning red light, red light, red light. Even by DFOs own numbers this suggests the run is less than 25% of their own targets — the run is “declining rapidly”.

AND YET — the ocean sport fishery on Chinook coastwide is open.

First Nations from all over the Fraser River watershed and approach areas — i.e. Johnstone Strait, Georgia Strait, and West Coast Vancouver Island — are all taking significant steps to stay away from these Chinook stocks.

There is a legal right to these fish for food, social, and ceremonial purposes. The Canadian courts have been quite clear on this issue, as is Fisheries legislation in Canada. Conservation is supposed to come first, then aboriginal fisheries, then commercial and sport fisheries.

Various media stories sometimes try to tell a different story — as do various constituencies that try to point to aboriginal fisheries as the main culprit of salmon declines. The numbers are clear though — historically the commercial fishery has taken close to 90% of the salmon; aboriginal fisheries less than 5% and sport fisheries around 5%.

The sport fishery numbers are growing though — a result of corporate concentration in this sector on the BC coast. This corporate concentration brings significant lobby power with the federal government and various public relations (PR) campaigns.

The inability of Fisheries and Oceans to make brave decisions seems to be severely hampered by this lobby — or maybe the perceived backlash. Hopefully, this ability to make the right decision comes very quickly before all we have is stories of Chinook once filling rivers…

Many BC First Nation communities have made some very brave decisions — stop food fisheries to let runs in danger of extinction reach the spawning grounds.

It’s simple to make a difference. Make a choice.

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