Somewhat good news: Spawning salmon levels rise Birkenhead River sees highest sockeye return in five years… yet co-opted “co-management”

A somewhat good news story about sockeye coming out of the Pemberton area near Whistler.

However, maybe mis-guided comments about “co-management”?

Spawning salmon levels rise Birkenhead River sees highest sockeye return in five years

The numbers are in from the Lil’wat Nation’s annual sockeye salmon stock assessment for the Birkenhead River. From the time the sockeye entered the river in late August to shortly after the counting fence was blown out by high water levels towards the end of the run in late September, a total of 193,547 sockeye were counted.

“It would certainly be the largest escapement (population) in the last five years,” said Mike Lapointe, head biologist of the Pacific Salmon Commission (PSC). “The previous largest escapement is 2006, which is 266,000, and since then we had 93,000 in ’07, 19,000 in ’08, 54,000 in ’09 and last year, 128,000.”

Typically, 90 per cent of Fraser River salmon have a four-year lifecycle, but the Birkenhead is different in that there can be significant numbers of five- and six-year-olds as well. This is partly related to the fact that it’s a coastal stream and subject to high flash flooding. Because of these fluctuations in the spawning habitat, the populations have evolved to produce more than one age class.

What this means, said Lapointe, is potentially this year’s higher rate of return is because some of the salmon are from 2006.

“With Fraser sockeye, we talk of parent years as being important since they have a four-year lifecycle, then we’d be looking at the escapement four years ago, which was ’07 and that number was 93,000,” he said. “And so for the Birkenhead, it looks like this parent year has produced fairly well.”

But he won’t know how many have returned in 2011 as five-year-olds from the abundant 2006 brood until he examines the samples, said Lapointe.

The Mount Currie Fisheries Program works closely with the PSC throughout the year, closely monitoring conditions of the fish and river.

“Because this is the territory we’ve grown up in and we’re very responsible for, we also document environmental information like temperatures, differences we see in the river and things that catch our eye,” said Maxine Joseph-Bruce, fisheries program manager for the Mount Currie Band.

The collected data is sent to the PSC along with samples — a combination of scales and otolith, the ear bone in the fish. Both have rings on them for determining age, very much like rings that you could see on a tree, said Lapointe.

The annual sockeye count requires the installation of a counting fence across the Birkenhead to create a four-foot wide opening the salmon can pass through. Narrowing the river in this manner facilitates tracking the number of fish swimming upstream.

“We situate a working platform just up-river, about eight feet from the opening, and we count every single fish that swims through that gate,” said Joseph-Bruce.

This year, the counting bench was staffed by two people 24 hours a day, seven days a week — in eight hour shifts — from Aug. 31 through to Sept. 23, when the fence had to be removed due to heavy rain and clogging caused by fallen leaves.

“Kids visit from the local schools, Signal Hill and Xit’olacw, a number of tourists stop in, plus it’s a really positive approach to education and awareness about salmon in our valley,” said Joseph-Bruce. “Some people don’t have a clue that sockeye are returning to the Birkenhead.”

Lapointe added, “The program that Maxine is running is just such a terrific example of the co-management that can occur with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in terms of having folks that live in the area do the assessments.”

Joseph-Bruce recently attended a salmon ceremony at Pemberton Secondary School and said she would like to see such appreciation for the Birkenhead salmon spread to all local communities.

“They’re aware of this beautiful animal that comes back here… I’m really proud of our youth who are paying attention, and how we in this valley are pretty lucky our land gets fed by these wonderful salmon that return back,” said Joseph-Bruce.

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Some great things in this article, and yet some gaping voids…

For example, as Mike Lapointe from the Pacific Salmon Commission mentions, this year’s return of just under 200,000 (to the river) is one of the better returns in several years — e.g, 2006 when the return (to the river) was a little over 250,000 sockeye.

The thing that is so rarely mentioned in any of these numbers…. what was the total run size estimate, before it got hammered by marine, mixed-stock fisheries opened by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Pacific Salmon Commission?

In 2006, for example, the marine exploitation rate (captured in ocean and Fraser mouth fisheries) was almost 30% of the total run size. The total estimated run size for 2006 was almost 600,000 sockeye — before fisheries in Canada’s waters opened on them.

In 2006, just over 175,000 Birkenhead sockeye were caught in fisheries, and a further almost 150,000 were “lost” en route.

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For further comparison, the biggest run prior to that was in 1993 when the total Birkenhead run size estimate was over 1.7 million sockeye.

That year the marine exploitation rate was estimated at 85%: over 1.3 million Birkenhead sockeye caught in marine fisheries on the BC coast in 1993.

Only 245,000 sockeye made it back to the river that year.

So one must gather that the esteemed fisheries science of the last several decades suggests that we can take 85% of a population and expect it to produce the same size run at the conclusion of its life cycle? (4-6 years when it comes to Birkenhead sockeye)

_ _ _ _ _ _

Similar story in 1986.

Total run size for Birkenhead sockeye estimated at over 1.6 million.

Marine exploitation that year = 78% or almost 1.3 million Birkenhead sockeye killed in marine fisheries.

Number of sockeye that actually made it up river to spawnjust over 330,000.

_ _ _ _ _ _

Want to see some real dismal numbers, look at some other years of Birkenhead sockeye. Go back one year further…


Total estimated run size: 144,000

Marine exploitation: 89% which equals, almost 130,000 sockeye caught.

How many made it to the river to spawn?


_ _ _ _ _ _

In the year 2000 (after how many public inquires into sockeye issues? 3, 4, 5?)

Total Birkenhead run size estimate: 63,000

Marine exploitation: 65%, almost 43,000 Birkenhead sockeye caught in fisheries.

Total return to spawning grounds: 14,470.

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The newspaper story says it well.

Typically, 90 per cent of Fraser River salmon have a four-year lifecycle, but the Birkenhead is different in that there can be significant numbers of five- and six-year-olds as well. This is partly related to the fact that it’s a coastal stream and subject to high flash flooding. Because of these fluctuations in the spawning habitat, the populations have evolved to produce more than one age class.

So sockeye populations of various rivers have ‘evolved’ (over eons and changing conditions) to deal with wide-ranging environmental conditions.

Did they evolve to deal with having upwards of 80% of their total returning runs caught in mixed-stock fisheries in the ocean?


They have enough challenges with mud slides (for example in the Pemberton area),

from Times Colonist

weather events, glacial run-off, spring and fall downpours, and the like, to contend with for simple survival. Let alone misguided fisheries management policies for upwards of 100 years that say, “yeah, go catch 80, 90% of those runs… they’ll be fine.”

The Birkenhead is one of only 19 Fraser sockeye stocks that has sufficient info to track in a year-after-year basis. And like so many other runs, this data is very time limited, the Birkenhead data only goes back into the 1980s.

What about many of the over 200 distinct Fraser sockeye stocks that once existed prior to the beginnings of cannery row in the late 1800s? The many 100s of stocks that had also ‘evolved’ various life strategies and characteristics to deal with local challenges and opportunities.


… that’s what.

The mixed-stock, Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY — see free e-book on this site), fishery practices of the last 100+ years sent those runs the way of the passenger pigeon, dodo bird, and wooly mammoth… victims of ‘market sustainability & ecological prioritization.’

_ _ _ _ _

And thus… is counting fish at fish fences and recording river and environmental data: “co-management“?

As in Mr. Lapointe’s: “The program… is just such a terrific example of the co-management that can occur with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in terms of having folks that live in the area do the assessments.”

Now, I do want to be respectful, as my interactions with Mr. Lapointe have been good ones. He seemed to me, quite a nice fellow. However in attempting to be ‘hard on the problem, not the person’ — last I checked, co-management is about power relations, not “participating in assessments”… (not to take away from the fact that there is participation permitted in this case).

For example, some suggest co-management means:

A political claim by users or community to share management power and responsibility within the state.


The sharing of power and responsibility between the government and local resource users.


Power sharing in the exercise of resource management between government agency and a community organization…


A partnership in which government agencies, local communities and resources users, NGOs and other stakeholders share… the authority and responsibility for the management of a specific territory or a set of resources.

These all come from the book: Adaptive Co-management: Collaboration, Learning, and Multi-level Governance by Armitage, Berkes and Doubleday put out by UBC Press in 2007. (pg. 3)

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When it comes to looking after wild salmon in Canada — I’m not sure that I’m aware of many (or any) effective “co-management” regimes, as in real sharing of “power” and “responsibility”… with First Nation or local settler communities.

Sure there’s funding handed out to count fish and record river temperatures… but true power-sharing? true partnership?


And how do we “co-manage” extinct wild salmon runs — such as the many that have disappeared on the Fraser system or up and down the BC coast?

What I am aware of is governments that insist, every time a case of aboriginal rights and title go to the highest courts in the land, vehemently deny that aboriginal rights and title exist.

And there’s one of the main problems… first people’s fishing rights keep having to be wrung through the adversarial and colonially-based legal system.

And the highest courts in the land repeatedly suggest: ‘yes, they do exist [the rights and the title] and everyone return to the negotiating table to figure it out’…

…that ‘power’ and ‘sharing’ thing… figure it out…

It’s not to say there aren’t efforts on these fronts (some of which that evolved from court cases)… just frustrating to see when terms get co-opted and watered down as if thrown into a muddied river in full fall freshet.

5 thoughts on “Somewhat good news: Spawning salmon levels rise Birkenhead River sees highest sockeye return in five years… yet co-opted “co-management”

  1. Dave

    You’re tied right into this process Dave, you know who the players are. So you should know that Mike and the PSC have nothing to do with the co-management approach DFO takes. But other than hanging it on Mike, I agree with the rest of your take on it. The co-management that does currently occur is just lip-service, but in my direct experience, the capacity required to take a more active role is severely lacking with these groups. There are a couple that are somewhat more progressive (think ONA), but the majority of the groups’ capacity is a fraction of their ambitions.

    As for your take on the Birkenhead, not sure what you’re getting at here. Yes, the ER’s were too high in the 80’s to be sustainable once marine survival took a nose dive. This is not news. If the ER this year turns out to be only 30%, that’s pretty damned good considering the numbers that made it back. There’s some other major stocks out there that are in far worse shape this year, due to both higher ERs than I would have liked to seen, coupled with apparent en-route loss. I thought you would maybe have focused on them instead of providing a cutting edge critique of the mid-80’s fisheries management structure. What’s the next post I should expect, “DFO mismanages Rivers Inlet sockeye in the 80’s, while wearing unfashionable piano ties”?

  2. salmon guy Post author

    thanks for the comment Dave,
    I think the numbers speak for themselves.
    Was it marine conditions nose-dive that caused salmon numbers to dwindle, or over 100 years of completely unsustainable exploitation rates (ERs)?

    What would be the difference in the Birkenhead if we let those 1 million+ get into the river? How many sockeye spawned in the Birkenhead in the mid-1800s and earlier?

    And no, its not a matter of hanging it on Mike L. — however, he may want to be a little more cautious about those kinds of statements to media, especially considering that the Commission isn’t involved in co-management, as you point out. And, if anything, for the simple reason that someone might call him on the comment, or the possibility of being misquoted by media. Fair enough comment on your part though.

    I wouldn’t say i’m tied into the process… i’ve volunteered my time to provide input and to ‘translate’ the bumpf coming out of the ‘processes’. Mainly a curious observer at this point, unless I get invited back into it.

    I agree with your comment on the capacity — however that goes every which way. I don’t think DFO has the capacity or the expertise either, especially now in a shrinking (‘conservative’) budget environment. Plus, (in my humble opinion) I don’t think DFO should be the lead agency in this process. Too much bias, too much history, too much institutional memory, and too many fundamental contradictions within the ministry (e.g. enforcement vs. co-management). Plus the simple fact that any time a fisheries dispute goes to the highest courts in the land surrounding issues of aboriginal rights and title, the federal government (through the Dept. of Justice) simply denies, denies, denies — that aboriginal rights and title exist.

    This in the face that court case after court case says: nope, those rights and title were never extinguished nor ceded (in B.C. especially).

    And, the fact that the federal government still participates in the BC Treaty Process (in all its flaws and move-like-molasses-in-winter speed, and full of high-priced “experts” mud bog, etc.) — as well as has certain government institutions like DFO participating in so-called “co-management” processes.

    I tend to be a fan of contradictions — the space between which, is where things really happen — however, the contradiction that is DFO, is unfortunately not really a place of possibility. Not to say that there aren’t some good people within the organization trying their damnedest. (just think Sisyphus and the big rock and the hill… the difference now is that every time Sisyphus goes to to push the rock up the hill he has to apply to a bunch of different government ministries to get a certificate of approval, and wait for those to arrive.)

    The “capacity” within various organizations to participate in co-management on the other side — for example community and First Nation organizations — absolutely right, quite limited in most instances. Are there gaps between aspirations and current capacity? for sure.

    A variety of ways one could look at that issue though… one of the most serious that doesn’t get enough thought… the fact that government institutions approach the issues in their ivory-towered, piecemeal, no-discussion-between-ministries, fragmented, divide-and-conquer (implicitly or explicitly) ways. Any one First Nation organization is bombarded by any multiple of government ministries on a daily basis. Basically any piece of paper that goes across any government desk (federal or Provincial, or municipal or regional district), in any Ministry, also goes through a First Nation organizations office, or is at least, supposed to go through those offices (especially in this day of government risk-management and rights and title infringements…)

    There is little coordination in government offices, and little communication, and often pissing matches between ministries and officials and so on. And thus, something like logging cut plans in an asserted First Nation territory then means that any piece of paper produced by government ministries (BC Ministry of Forests, Ministry of Environment, Min. of Ag and Lands, Min. of Mines, DFO, federal Ministry of Environment, and so on and so on) all go through a small office with limited staff and limited budgets (thanks to Indian Act limitations, and the added bureaucracy of federal Dept of Indian Affairs)… (add in that almost all of these ministries change names under every new regime, especially in BC)… and we have what is called a grand clusterfuck.

    If we take it another step further, also banging on the door with more papers and demands are all of the various business proponents with grand promises, or plain-and-simple disrespectful demands (mining companies, exploration companies, logging companies, contractors, etc.)… (granted some companies have learned how to do things a little better than the past)… then add in Nations that have to go through Environmental Assessments for big projects (mining, pipelines, etc.).

    Another step, add in the well-intentioned (and sometimes not-well-intentioned) ‘researchers’ and academic institutions wanting to ‘partner’ and environmental groups wanting to further their campaigns…

    And probably worst of all, high-priced consultants and lawyers (the aboriginal industry as many call it — see the controversial book, for example, Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry.) that also bang on the door, or as some suggest, feed at the trough.

    Add in, educational systems and other bureaucracies that do little to benefit many First Nation communities, the well-publicized issues surrounding water treatment plants, and multitude of other community issues with their roots in over a century of discrimination and outright racist, colonial-mentality policies, and so on, and so on, and so on.

    This isn’t meant to be any sort of sob story… it’s plain and simple day-to-day reality in many First Nation organizations. There is a growing number of positive good news stories, yet there are still no shortage of challenges ahead, especially with no shortage of government representatives that continue to approach things in the: those communities in the “middle-of-nowhere” approach. And a system that continues to push organizations into the adversarial, and inherently expensive (for everyone involved) court system.

    Something has got to give at some point; in BC, this approach is so far from sustainable.

    Thus, even if some sort of co-management ‘agreement’ is penned and signed on the Fraser River, will anyone have the capacity to implement it?

    It’s sort of like the old philosophical conundrum: tree-in-the-forest-falling no body there, does it make a sound?

    If government institutions sign co-management agreements with other organizations and nobody has the capacity to implement — does an agreement really exist?
    More so, if various organizations sign an agreement on behalf of, and with little input from, the constituents most affected by those agreements (i.e., community members on all sides) — does an agreement really exist?

    And what are we “co-managing”?… paper, people… or the ‘resources’ (more aptly called “this beautiful animal” by Maxine in the article)?
    And how can it really be “co-management” if multiple numbers of ministries that impact Fraser salmon are not signed on as well?

    Looks to me, more like nice words on the by-product (e.g. paper) of some trees that were heard falling in the forest (but maybe not heard over the feller-buncher motor that brought them down), and some sort of notch-in-the-bed-post for the ‘architects’ involved.

    By the way… what is a piano-tie? could you send me a picture… i feel another cartoon coming on…

  3. Dave Barnes

    Dave L, we have way too many Dave’s on this forum!
    I was part of the DFO training component for the AFS in the early 90’s. – my job was to teach salmonid ID and life histories, habitat rehabilitation, correct scientific sampling procedures, stock assessment methods, field work safety, etc. Others taught resource management, media communications, enforcement techniques, boat handling/trailering etc, etc. Huge dollars were available for a few years to build educational capacity to FN bands throughout the Fraser and Skeena watersheds and, I think we did a damn fine job training FN people to be hands on technicians/enforcement officers for their respective bands. IMO, that is co- management at its best.

    Unfortunately, infrastructure funding for this process was curtailed and the trained people were basically abandoned. What disappointment that was for us trainers and what a huge kick in the gonads to the dedicated FN students who put in app. one year of their time to become responsible and contributable members of their communities.

    The possibility of DFO and FN working together, in agreement and with respect, lost about 15 years with this bad decision – I agree with both you Dave’s; FN need a much more important role in salmon management but, and this is key, they need the financial support to regain the educational capacity that was once so close.

  4. salmon guy Post author

    i agree Dave, and i’m sure we can all reminisce about the old barenaked ladies song…
    great points.

    As i try and point out… it’s not all bad in the salmon world, as much as we can all get pulled to that side of the fence… the cynical side.
    It’s also not all bad in the world of DFO. I evey say in many different forums… there are good people within the organization, and some good initiatives. It just seems that good initiatives are short-lived, and not funded long enough. (with maybe salmon in the classrom as one of the longer term funded positive programs)

    The syndrome you mention is far too common in First Nation communities where i’ve worked and lived and many others could attest to. Build up hopes, excitement, just start making some good progress, and… shazaam, no more funding, hang everyone out to dry… government programs, academic programs, business programs, non-profit programs, enviro programs, etc.

    some academics suggest we’re in a ‘post-colonial’ world… hmmm, maybe come spend some more time in northern communities…

    one of my more common questions… where is the training in reverse?
    where are the DFO employees, or other institutions, coming to communities and learning about culture, oral histories, local knowledge and the like?
    It often happens as a side benefit… however, many suggest it should be a direct effort. Then no body is in the higher power role. As much as possible — it become equal teacher and student relationships…

    thanks again Daves for comments. all good for the conversation.

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