In his op-ed on Monday, “Chinook salmon under threat”, Fisheries and Ocean Minister Jonathan Wilkinson described a way forward to sustainable fisheries and rehabilitated Chinook stocks based on a science-based approach. While the proposed actions are to be applauded, the science-based defense of recently announced Chinook measures for the public fishery — which effectively doubled down on harvest restrictions already in place — is frustrating and misleading.
The decisions were not based solely on science and are particularly hard to accept when, by the department’s own admission, harvest restrictions have been ineffective at remedying declining escapement — escapement being the number of fish that return and spawn in natal rivers. This aspect of the department’s approach to Fraser River Chinook concerns is akin to continual treatment of a symptom rather than addressing the disease.
While the minister notes that actions are planned or will be discussed, there are known and effective changes that should be implemented right now to improve and rehabilitate the stocks of concern. These include moving harvest away from stocks of concern and on to hatchery fish, which would be most effective if all hatchery salmon produced in B.C. waters were fin clipped and therefore easily identified, something already in place in Washington State and planned for Alaska.
The current practice in Canada sees fin-clip rates on hatchery fish of just 10 per cent. Additional enhancement of existing and identification of new hatchery stocks should be considered in a responsible manner, using guidance provided by the wild salmon policy. Addressing area and time-specific predator control of seals and sea lions would also allow for successful production of potentially millions more Chinook.
Increased Chinook production would save the wild stocks harmless from fishing pressure and still allow for sustainable and carefully managed harvest in fisheries of all kinds. Finally, adopting a reasonable and precautionary approach to open-water net pen fish farms by moving them to closed containment would significantly reduce or even eliminate the introduction of pathogens and impacts of parasites to juvenile salmon stocks as they pass through or grow in the tidal waters of B.C.
I agree that unfortunately there are real and significant environmental challenges faced by runs of Fraser River Chinook salmon. There is no denying that there are effects from, for example, forest fires on riverside habitat or of climate change on ocean conditions, but it should not be characterized that all Chinook salmon are in peril. They are not and the state of those affected runs should not be used to explain the state of the entire species, as the minister has recently.
That broad description or implication is simply not true and has seriously damaged the reputation of B.C.’s public fishery. This fishery harvests less than 10 per cent of the five salmon species yet contributes $1.1 billion to the B.C. economy, provides 9,000 jobs and touches the lives of 300,000 annual licence holders, their families and the businesses that benefit from the activity and tourism-related spending.
It is troubling and at an unnecessary cost to the public fishery when it is the optics of the actions that are more important than the expected effects.
If broad and general harvest reductions in the ocean are deemed necessary to restrict First Nation harvest on the river, the highest source of impact on the stocks of concern from a harvest perspective, this signals a precedent in action that turns priority access for First Nations to exclusion of access to other Canadians. It also highlights that the Fisheries and Oceans Canada is unwilling to identify the magnitude — or not — of impacts of the public fishery on Fraser River Chinook in specific areas.
This careful analysis is required, possible and reasonable to allow for any opportunities for the public fishery. A public fishery also allows for the maintenance of important catch-data-gathering activities, head sampling as an example. Catch and biological data play an important role, one that Fisheries and Oceans Canada depends upon to properly understand impacts and movement of salmon stocks.
While I agree with Wilkinson’s remarks regarding actions to address the decline of specific Chinook stocks and how to rehabilitate them, I am concerned about the apparent lack of urgency in implementing the actions. Steps — including habitat protection, habitat restoration, Improved stock assessment and predator concerns — are all needed immediately.
Additional processes or discussions can and undoubtedly must occur but there must also be a response on the ground as soon as possible. As the minister says, we must work together to protect Fraser Chinook salmon and to ensure the sustainability of these populations for the future. But if we are to be successful, that work must begin as soon as possible.
Owen Bird is executive director of the Sport Fishing Institute of B.C.
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