Fraser Early Spring Chinook communication

Late last week I received an email from a fellow who has run a sport fishing business out of Sooke near Victoria, BC. for over a decade. This week there is a meeting in Victoria of the local Sport Fishing Advisory Board — apparently Fisheries and Oceans is looking to discuss potential changes in sport fishing regulations for this season.

Here is the email (which he suggested was fine to post) and my response:

Hello Salmon Guy,

My name is {…..}, I’ve been guiding for 11 years out of the Sooke area on Vancouver Island. I’m forwarding you this e-mail, as you are obviously very versed on the topic of Salmon conservation.

Do you have any suggestions for the sport fishermen (SFAB) on the west coast that are faced with closures, due to First Nations on the upper Fraser River wanting to put a ban on fishing the Fraser? In your opinion will the First Nations people really not fish the River?

What are your thoughts on the slot restriction that runs from March 1st to May 20th in our area, is it enough to assist the upper Fraser returns, will it help to run the restriction through the summer to July? It would be great to hear what you think.

Thanks.

……

Many thanks for the email.

This is such an important topic of conversation right now; crucial from the numbers on Fraser Chinook that I’ve seen. It’s great to see someone such as yourself seeking to find some balance and more information in the discussion. As you probably well know, it’s also pretty damn complicated — however, now that we’re nearing crisis mode on some of these issues (e.g. Fraser sockeye, Fraser Chinook, etc.) things appear to be boiling down to the basics. My hope is that folks such as yourself – hands in the water, hands on the fish – are going to play a big part in devising solutions.

I am also a long-time sport fisherman. If you may have noticed on my website; I grew up on Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Is.) – and salmon have always played a huge part in my life. Generally, catching and eating them. Yet, I don’t secure my living, as you do, from taking people out to catch salmon — a career and business choice I’ve often pondered though. A big part of the reason I stay engaged in the salmon discussions is that I have three young kids and I sure as hell hope that they have a lifelong relationship with salmon.

That being said, and getting down to your questions…

Here are some numbers that I have on Fraser River Early Spring Chinook, and maybe you’ve seen these (the Spring 4 sub2 population — meaning they spent two years rearing in freshwater as smolts before heading to the ocean). Last year (2009) was the lowest return ever recorded. It was also one of the lowest recorded levels of survival – below 1%.

Since 1999, survival rates on the Spring 4-2 Chinook have been abysmal (I have some numbers and charts from a DFO presentation I recently sat through – let me know if you’d like these sent along). And yet, exploitation rates on these stocks have remained over 30%. In 2006-07 exploitation rate estimates (and I don’t think I can emphasize “estimates” enough) was 44.2%. This was cut to 35.8% in 2008. Apparently, in 2009, this was cut another 20%; however, the numbers are not out yet for last year.

These exploitation numbers are all based on the Nicola River run (mouth at Spences Bridge) on the Thompson River.

Here’s where things get dicey for folks such as yourself. There are rather rough estimates on the sport catch of Chinook 4-2s: from Northern BC, West Coast Vancouver Island, Juan de Fuca, Fraser River, etc. No on can actually say how accurate the reports on sport catch are (you and your colleagues would probably have the best knowledge of this). DFO suggests there are creel surveys; however I’ve also been informed by some jr. DFO staff that estimates suggest those get less than 10% coverage of the sport fishing sector.

There is also quite a significant catch of these Chinook 4-2s in the sport fishery at the mouth of the Nicola River (almost 20% of the total Nicola catch in 2006-07 and close to 10% in 2008).

On the First Nation side of things. There have been quite a few Fraser Chinook 4-2s caught in the net fishery on the Nicola. This year, however, the agreements that appear to be in the works could be historic. There has been a call by Bands, Nations, Tribal Councils and communities from up and down the Fraser River and along all the approach areas (i.e. West Coast Vancouver Island and Johnstone Strait) to keep their nets out of the water to ensure these Early Spring Chinook can get through. Many suggest this is the first time in recent memory where a near-consensus has been reached on this issue.

And yet, this goes directly to your very valid question: “will First Nations really not fish the river?”

My feeling is: yes. However, will every last net be pulled? – probably not.

There is not only a near crisis with these early spring Chinook — there is a crisis in many First Nation communities in the Fraser River. Many of these communities have been able to catch their winter store of salmon for a long, long time. Now, with the collapse of sockeye, the collapse of these Chinook (the most sought after due to taste, quality and size – many of the same reasons sport fishers like them so much…including me…) there are communities literally starving. However, this is one of those issues that books can be written on, let alone an email response.

The analogy I draw on this issue of everyone pulling their nets or hooks is: does everyone wear their seatbelt, even though it’s the law? Is everyone wearing a bike helmet when riding their bikes, even though it’s the law?

There is alway some dissent in any community – the fundamental principle as I see it: is that this all comes to personal choice… some really, really tough personal choices.

Here are some sobering numbers: Last year, 26 Chinook returned to the Coldwater River, 138 Chinook returned to Spius Creek, and 461 Chinook returned to the Nicola River spawning grounds. Estimates suggest that for any fishery to occur (First Nation, commercial or sport), 2000 Chinook need to return to Coldwater, 2000 to Spius, and 6000 to the Nicola. Last year barely 6% of those numbers actually returned.

Dicier yet… for me, it’s not really even a question of whether anyone should be fishing or not — it’s more about whether the early spring Chinook can even produce enough smolts and have them survive to even maintain the run. It’s in a death spiral right now.

Where this gets even more complicated is in the legal ramifications of all this (and by no means am I lawyer…). According to case law and Section 35 of the Constitution, and largely the Fisheries Act – salmon fisheries are supposed to be managed on the following clear principles of allocation:

  1. Conservation first.
  2. then, Aboriginal food, social, and ceremonial fisheries.
  3. then, commercial and sport fisheries.

One of the court cases from the 1990s – the Sparrow decision – laid it out clearly; that when there are conservation concerns the commercial and sport fishing sector must bear the brunt of the measures. That can be brutal on folks in your business, and folks in the commercial sector. Last week I sat in on a Fraser Sockeye Forum put on by Simon Fraser University and heard commercial fisherman loud and clear on how hard three years of closure have been on them – it’s basically a dieing industry – I have some posts that highlight some of the numbers over the last few years. I also watched the demise of the commercial fishing sector on Haida Gwaii as I grew up – coincidentally (or not) the same thing has happened with the logging industry over the last decade.

And thus we arrive at the present situation with the early spring Chinook (4-2s). First Nations from up and down the river, and along the approach areas are calling for a complete closure of any fisheries that may impact these populations. The numbers and survival rates on this population suggest no one should be fishing due to conservation concerns. DFO pre-season forecasts for this year even have these populations of Chinook listed as:

Status 1 [of 4]: Stock of concern. Stock is (or forecast to be) less than 25% of target or is declining rapidly. Directed fisheries are unlikely and there may be a requirement to avoid indirect catch of the stock.”

First Nations are looking at the pre-season forecasts as well as survival rates and returns over the last few years and will be closing fisheries to ensure these Chinook can get through to spawning grounds. Many First Nations have also requested that DFO do the same with other fisheries that may impact these stocks. To date, DFO has declined to do so — as coastwide Chinook sport fisheries remain open.

So, it’s probably not a very popular answer with anyone, but No, I don’t think the slot restrictions will help. The bottom-line appearing from the numbers is that no one should be fishing while these stocks migrate through. Legally, the question also has to be asked whether anyone should be fishing — there is clearly a serious conservation concern for these early spring Chinook.

I remember the complete coho closures of the late 1990s quite well. I was living on Haida Gwaii at the time and it was tough on lots of folks in the sport fishing industry — as well as my own freezer, as coho was a big part of my food fishery (that’s the joy of living on the coast). The numbers on early Fraser Chinook appear worse than the coho numbers of the 90s.

As I said at the Fraser sockeye forum last week (a room full of largely scientists), we are in a time of really tough decisions. It appears that healthy salmon runs are a big part of your personal and business interests.  And what this is boiling down to is that folks are having to seriously ponder the balance between the short-term and long-term. First Nations folks, settler cultures, DFO, commercial fishers, sport fishers, and so on. It’s not an easy discussion – and unfortunately, my experience (albeit pretty young) is that the fights over the last decade or two on dwindling salmon runs do no one any good. Protest fisheries of any kind, the fight over “rights” to fishing, and so on and so on… leave the biggest impact on the fish.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that we all have a vested interest in ensuring healthy salmon runs. We all want to know that salmon are swimming upstream, swimming out to the ocean, doing their thing. If there’s enough there that we can catch some and eat them how we see fit — fantastic. Right now though, with low survival rates, freshwater issues, predator issues, climate change, growing populations, and so on — can some of these salmon populations sustain fishing pressure of any kind?

The fact of the matter is that these decisions will be made in meeting rooms around B.C. and in Ottawa…

thanks again for the email.

I’m actually in Victoria next week for salmon-related meetings out in Saanich. I’m always keen to talk to folks with their hands or boots in the water. Would be more than happy to catch up and talk some more about these issues. As you can see, I’m able to find no shortage of words… I hope this assists in your pondering of this issue. Please feel free to contact me again.

I’m also wondering if you would mind if I used your email and my response as a posting on my website? I will keep your name, business, etc. out of it.

thanks,

David Loewen

D. Loewen & Associates

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