Carrying Capacity & Salmon fishing

Sharing the river. Should I be smiling...?

Seth Godin, marketing guru and general ponderer, has a fitting post today on carrying capacity — and many folks might consider pondering the message. Here are a couple key points:

An organization with eight people in it might be happy, profitable and growing. The same business with twenty might be on the way to bankruptcy.

Ideas, markets, niches and causes have a natural scale. If you get it right, you can thrive for a long time. Overdo it and you stress the inputs…

Your industry might have room for six or seven well-paid consultants, but when you try to scale up to 30 or 40 people on your team, you discover that it stresses the market’s ability to pay.

Yesterday, my website was picked up by a British Columbia Sport Fishing discussion forum that is focusing on the issue of potential sport fishing closures to protect the Fraser River early-timed Chinook (the 4-2’s). If you haven’t seen earlier posts on my site here, or seen the numbers, this particular population of Fraser Chinook is on a death spiral and has been for several years (over four years by Fisheries and Oceans own estimates).

Right now, these Chinook are also migrating from the North Pacific to the Fraser River. At this moment, they are migrating right past the BC capital city of Victoria through the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

And, yet Fisheries and Oceans Canada has deemed that Chinook stocks around British Columbia are healthy enough to support coast-wide sport fishing openings on the ocean — from Haida Gwaii to the mouth of the Fraser River.

However, First Nations and others are asking for a complete fishing closure  to allow these early-timed Chinook through to the spawning grounds of which basically every last fish of these runs needs to finish their life. Scarier yet, there is even a major hatchery (Spius Creek) that support this early-timed Chinook run — and the run is still in deep trouble.

Reading through the particular Sport Fishing discussion forum — one can see that many individuals are taking serious issue with the fact that sport fishing openings that they rely on for their businesses may have to be closed — and should be closed based on the early-timed Chinook numbers. Angry individuals are lashing out at targets for their blame — and fair enough, many of these folks have probably run thriving businesses for several years based on a finite resource.

One thing is clear… numbers and statistics coming out of Fisheries and Oceans are unreliable, full of holes, and dependent on various computer models and equations. DFO’s own numbers suggest that early-timed Chinook can only sustain an exploitation rate of 8-11% while productivity remains as low as it has been for over four years. Last year (2009), DFO numbers just released suggest that 50% of the run was killed (with 30% of that attributed to two marine sport fishery areas).

(It should be pointed out that the south-east Alaska commercial fishery is allocated a certain percentage of Chinook as part of the Pacific Salmon Treaty. Of course, DFO maintains that all of these early-timed Chinook migrate along the continental shelf before coming inland and thus don’t impact Fraser Chinook)

(oh yeah, that’s out where the Pacific Hake trawl fleet is busy, along with other industrial trawl fisheries… just fish for thought).

Varying levels of accuracy or not — 50% of the run killed is absolutely unacceptable. It doesn’t even matter at this point who caught what percentage. The bottom line is that DFO is failing miserably in protecting a vital public resource that countless individuals (and other critters) depend on.

And worse yet, this massive federal bureaucracy with over one hundred people responsible for looking after wild salmon maintains ignorance:

  • “we don’t know what it is…”
  • “ocean productivity is down… it’s not us.”
  • “it’s definitely not salmon farms…”

It is, thus, unfortunate, to read various discussion postings, comments on media stories and so on, that point fingers at First Nation fisheries as the culprit — or carry on about equal access for all, or “one fishery for all” as the federal Conservatives call it.

Quick numbers: historically the commercial fishery is responsible for over 90% of salmon catch in BC, sport fishery 3-5% and First Nation fisheries 3-5%.

As Godin, suggests in his post:

An organization with eight people in it might be happy, profitable and growing. The same business with twenty might be on the way to bankruptcy.

I draw an analogy with the U.S. banking sector and what has happened over the last few years. For many years the banking sector was ‘happy, profitable and growing’. Then it got carried away and when that particular business sector reached “twenty” — bankruptcies ensued en-masse.

The difference with wild salmon… there are no “Tarps”.

Troubled Asset Relief Programs (TARP). And even if there was — interventions are incredibly expensive; just ask the Alaskan or Japanese salmon ranching programs…

Over the last decade or two, the sport fishing sector has grown on a scale similar to fish farming — somewhere around 2000%. (Actually, fish farming since the 80s is probably closer to a 2,000,000% growth rate.)

When I was a kid growing up on Haida Gwaii (once referred to as the Queen Charlotte Is.) sport fishing as a business was a tiny sector. It’s not to say that lots of folks weren’t sport fishing. I was on a river or on the “chuck” (ocean) basically every weekend from the age of 3 to late teens — mainly fishing for coho.

Sport fishing lodges and the like were just not a huge business — yet.

Now… sport fishing lodges on the west coast of Canada are booming businesses — dotting the BC coast like the salmon canneries and whale stations of old. Or, the logging camps of past decades. (do you sense a pattern?)

Along with this corporate consolidation, tonnes of small mom-and-pop sport fishing businesses; eking out a living on a seasonal sport fishing clientele.

Curiously, it seems to be a similar tract as the commercial fishing industry (or whaling industry before that) — which has largely gone the way of the U.S. banking sector. Only the big and ‘vertically-horizontally integrated/ corporately consolidated‘ have survived. Most of the mom-and-pop operations (i.e. like small regional banks) driven out of existence.

Exactly as Godin suggests:

Ideas, markets, niches and causes have a natural scale. If you get it right, you can thrive for a long time. Overdo it and you stress the inputs…

Sport fishing and sport fishing businesses relying on wild salmon (or hatchery salmon) also have a natural scale — just as commercial fisheries do. There may be room for several businesses built upon the backs of wild salmon; however there is not room for corporate concentration and consolidation.

There is not room for rough estimates that suggest:

  • a peak day off the west coast of Haida Gwaii with 400-500 sport fishing boats in the water;
  • off the Northwest Coast, West Coast, and southwest coast of Vancouver Island with maybe 1000 (?) sport fishing boats in the water;
  • Johnston Strait and Georgia Strait with 200-400 (?) boats;
  • Central BC Coast with ?? hundred;
  • allocations of Chinook to the Southeast Alaska commercial fishery; and so on.


Your industry might have room for six or seven well-paid consultants, but when you try to scale up to 30 or 40 people on your team, you discover that it stresses the market’s ability to pay.

I would hope then — and as an avid sport fisherman myself — that maybe the sport fishing business sector and associations might enter those tough discussions about “scale”…. about how many ‘businesses’, along with how many ‘food fishers’ (my general focus for sport fishing) can be supported by current salmon runs in B.C.

Maybe go have some discussions with sport fishers and sport fishing business-owners along the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California who haven’t seen an opening in a little while… with any openings almost entirely focussed on hatchery runs.

We all need to remember that we’re basically after the same thing: salmon. Sadly, of which, are declining at rapid rates and have been for at least my generation.

And, of which, we’re not the only ones that depend on them — as demonstrated in my picture above.

4 thoughts on “Carrying Capacity & Salmon fishing

  1. will (the devil's own advocate)

    Its all about scale… I was involved with some work for the Macaulay land use research institute which later got published in nature (I was a research assistant fluncky – i will take no credit!) which looked at the spatial distribution of Scots Pine and the heredity of the forest in relation to specific chemo-types. The long and the short is: most of the time there is no relationship: randomness occurs, but at specific scales a relationship appears. This could be called spatial autocollelation for those amongst us with a geographic bent. (If things are close then they are more likely to be similar). Well I guess that’s obvious to most people. Interestingly as far as the scots pine were concerned there was a sweet spot, a sweet ring, of similarity.

    But it is important to remember that scale affects us all in different ways and we often reference scale effects daily “big fish small pond”, “getting mileage”, “understanding boundaries” are all cliches used to describe scale issues in everyday life.

    Fish and fisheries, Dave are all about scale. What is the sweet spot for fish? My guess is that the answer lays independent of typical human thought, ie we need to abstract ourselves and our needs from the question before we can understand what is happening to the fish and how we should manage it. The arguments presently available are based not on fish, but on harvesting fish. at a certain scale this was ok, but the ratio has changed, and so must the scale. If we want fish, then we need to understand fish, not how to fish… 🙂

  2. salmon guy Post author

    I think you’re dead on Will. Almost everything about fisheries management – and especially salmon – is all about how much we can harvest; as opposed to developing any understanding of what’s going on. We’ll probably never really “know”; however, can certainly try to develop a better understanding.

    When it comes to the ‘sweet spot for fish’ – a great analogy – I think there was a time when this was understood. That was most likely pre-contact. First Nations people and salmon co-evolved together as ice receded off the landscape 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. Salmon and people re-colonized landscapes previously under kilometres of ice. There had to be a sweet spot (or sustainability), otherwise people died, trade ceased, and other critters like bears and eagles went hungry too.

    There are also some theories that suggest some human harvest can be quite beneficial to salmon populations. If too many salmon reach spawning grounds then the populations might start showing classic boom-and-bust characteristics – like the basic ecological relationship between foxes and rabbits. There is certainly some cyclic relationships in salmon, however these are usually two or four year cycles.

    The sustainable relationship (pre-contact) ensured salmon got upstream to people, as well as to spawning grounds, and too other critters. Too many fish on the grounds may not be a good thing. Unfortunately, this got adopted by present day science in the theory of “overescapement” (too many fish ‘escape’ fisheries). Unfortunately, folks have lost track of what salmon population were before canneries started hammering them in the mid to late 1800s. Some estimates of Fraser sockeye suggest total populations of over 160 million sockeye on big cycle years. Last year’s 1 million on what should have been a decent year…. that’s a crash of ‘biblical’ proportions (as they saying goes).

    And thus, trying to understand the fish, means some better understanding of what was here over 150 years ago when Western science arrived with a lot of assumptions, and a lot of charts and graphs.

    thanks for the thoughts Will.

  3. Sean

    I live in Erie, Pa and do not have to wonderful opportunities that the people have on the west coast as far as salmon fisheries. However, I do fish for steelhead and coho’s here and I must say there is no finer sport fish. I follow the west coast salmon fishery closely because I just love the fish. I read the $2 for a salmon post, I think that is horrible. It’s no wonder the salmon fisheries seem to be diminishing over the years. I have to agree with Dave, understanding the fish and trying to make it best for them is the best way to bring the fisheries back.

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