Policy leaves fishermen high and dry: critics

Federal agency accused of condemning commercial sockeye fleet to feast-or-famine cycle

Vancouver-based fisherman Mike Emes: “I expected to catch probably a couple thousand sockeye and I caught zero” | Chung Chow

While fishermen in Alaska were enjoying a banner year thanks to massive returns of Bristol Bay sockeye, their counterparts in British Columbia were pretty much idled, thanks to lower-than-expected returns of sockeye and pink salmon and to what fishermen say is overly cautious escapements.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) was not able to provide a final tally on this year’s returns. But Fraser River sockeye returns this year are unofficially being reported to be around two million – about a third of the 6.8 million median forecast – and Fraser River pink salmon at 6.2 million – about half of the 14.5 million predicted.

As a result, there was no commercial opening on Fraser River sockeye this year, said Joy Thorkelson, spokeswoman for the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union. Even more troubling were the returns on the Skeena River, which have tended to be reliable in the past.

“The Skeena was a complete and absolute flop,” Thorkelson said. “It came in at about a third of what it was scheduled to be.”

That doesn’t mean there weren’t enough fish for a modest commercial opening, just that it came too late for most fishermen to catch what fish were available.

Mike Emes, a Vancouver-based fisherman who primarily fishes Skeena River sockeye, said the DFO let more Skeena sockeye escape than was necessary.

Out of an original estimated commercial harvest of one million on the Skeena, fishermen caught 10,000 fish, Thorkelson said.

Emes said the escapement target for the Skeena is about 700,000, but that DFO likes to be safe and aimed for one million. But Emes said it is estimated that 1.4 million Skeena River sockeye were allowed to escape up the river this year.

At $10 per fish, that means fishermen like Emes had to watch as $4 million to $7 million swam by.

“They just refused to let us fish,” Emes said. “Anything over one million, we should have been fishing on.”

Emes said he spent $11,000 on input costs this year. He spent five days and 1,000 litres of fuel travelling to Prince Rupert just to come up empty-handed. Although he caught a few chum in the Kitimat area, the Skeena fishery was a bust, so this year he will be running at a loss.

“I expected to catch probably a couple thousand sockeye and I caught zero. Instead of catching $20,000 worth, I caught zero dollars’ worth.”

There were a few bright spots, such as Barkley Sound, and some areas with relatively good pink salmon returns, but otherwise, returns for both pink and sockeye were generally disappointing.

So why were pink and sockeye returns so low in B.C., when Alaskan sockeye numbers were so high? According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Bristol Bay sockeye came in this year at 58 million – the second-highest run in the last two decades.

Bristol Bay sockeye have migration patterns different from those of B.C. sockeye, so they may be benefiting from more favourable ocean conditions, including cooler temperatures, say fisheries scientists.

“It looks like there’s some kind of trade-off across the Pacific, so when it’s good in one part of the Pacific, it won’t be as good in other parts,” said Carl Walters, professor emeritus for the University of British Columbia’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries and department of zoology.

“It’s weird because parts of the B.C. coast saw near-record returns of pinks, including the Broughton Archipelago. I gather they had a huge (return) of pinks up there, where they’re supposed to be going extinct because of sea lice and fish farms.”

Fish farms were just one of the potential culprits identified in a lineup of suspects following the near-collapse of the Fraser River sockeye in 2009.

Other suspects, examined by the $26 million Cohen Commission inquiry, included illegal poaching, habitat loss and climate change, none of which seemed to fully explain why, just one year after one of the lowest returns on record (1.3 million), Fraser River sockeye boomed back with one of the strongest – about 29 million.

Commercial fishermen are now increasingly inclining to a controversial – and counterintuitive – theory that the DFO is letting too many fish escape upriver to spawn.

That theory posits that escapements have overloaded spawning grounds with salmon, straining lake food supplies and boosting populations of other species, such as trout, that feed on the hatchlings. The result, according to the theory, is that the next year’s cycle of salmon suffers.

Walters has been the most vocal proponent of this model, called delayed density dependence. It’s a difficult theory to prove, because lake and ocean ecosystems are so complex.

But advocates of the theory point out that it predicted that this year’s returns would be low because the escapement in 2010 was so high.


Yet the patterns that are emerging may be the most natural. Historically, Fraser River sockeye returns were marked by one large dominant year, followed by a subdominant one, followed by two years of lower returns.

Over a period of decades, those cycles got smoothed out through management tools, but they appear to have returned, thanks to larger escapements. According to Walters, all that does is needlessly condemn commercial fishermen to feast-and-famine cycles.

“We’re headed for having just one good run every four years and nothing else, just like they had before the fishery got started in the late 1800s,” Walters said. “In the big dominant years, they should be just absolutely pounding the stocks. They should be – instead of targeting five million, or whatever their escapement goals are now – they should be looking at under one million. They should really be fishing hard.”

Brian Riddell, former head of salmon stock assessment and research at the Pacific Biological Research Station and current CEO of the Pacific Salmon Foundation, said recent patterns do tend to lend some credence to the density dependency model, although he thinks it’s too soon to draw any hard conclusions.

“You won’t be able to separate this effect for a few more years because you need other observations yet,” he said. “But right now, there is more evidence leaning towards the delayed density model than not taking it into account.”

Don Noakes, former director for the Pacific Biological Research Station and current dean of science and technology at the University of Victoria, also said recent patterns lends some support to the delayed density dependence model, but thinks things like ocean conditions – including ocean warming – still may be the bigger factor.

Phil Mundy, laboratory director for the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, goes further. He said ocean conditions are far more important than what happens in lakes and rivers, since the ocean is where salmon spent most of their lives.

“If I was asked if the differences between the production of salmon in B.C. – and particularly pink salmon and sockeye – and the production of pink salmon and sockeye in Alaska – how they differ – management would be the last thing on my list,” he said.

“It’s not a good idea to saturate the spawning grounds on a regular basis. Nonetheless, the ability for the freshwater management to really impact the total abundance is extremely limited.”

In Alaska, he said the single most important management tool that rebuilt Bristol Bay stocks back from the verge of collapse was the banning of high sea drift net fishing. In 1973, the total return of Bristol Bay sockeye was just 2.3 million, he said.

Today, if the commercial catch is less than 15 million, he said, “it’s considered to be a federal disaster.”