Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) is strongly considering a total shutdown of all chinook and sockeye fishing on the North Coast.
The potential 2018 fishing ban will include all First Nation food, social and ceremonial harvesting; all commercial operations; and all charter boat and recreational angling.
Even the possibility of such a closure, several groups say, is nothing less than devastating.
“Outright closure to the recreational fisheries will decimate the town’s tourist economy this summer,” David Lewis, chair of the Prince Rupert Sport Fishing Advisory Board, said.
DFO has been meeting with First Nations, recreational and commercial committees to determine if the closures for both sockeye and chinook are even avoidable.
Last year, low predicted returns of sockeye initiated a closure starting June 15. Food, social and ceremonial harvesting for sockeye was also curtailed. Recreational fishing for chinook in the Skeena River was also closed for six weeks.
Colin Masson, North Coast area director for Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), told the Northern View there could potentially be no access to sockeye for the second year in a row.
“The numbers do not look good. We are extremely concerned about what might happen in the Skeena,” Masson said. Estimates for sockeye abundance is just slightly over 500,000.
The trigger for the recreational fishery to open is an estimated escapement of 800,000 sockeye at the Tyee Test Fishery. For food, social and ceremonial harvesting the trigger is 400,000 — but last year, First Nations communities voluntarily agreed they wouldn’t harvest sockeye until the escapement reached 600,000. Instead, First Nations supplemented their sockeye catch with chinook — a North Pacific salmon that is now also facing low numbers.
“While no decision has been made at this point, we’re really challenged to see on what basis there would be any sort of chinook harvest on the Skeena. It may well be that there could even be further consultation with the province, there may even be an option of an angling closure in the summer in the Skeena,” Masson said.
A potential angling closure on the Skeena River is what the Sport Fishing Advisory Board is nervous about. Early discussions include sockeye closures not only for the entire Skeena Watershed but for the adjacent marine fisheries (Area 3, 4 , 5) as well.
No decisions have been made at this point and a number of options have been tabled. Board chair, Lewis, said if that happened it would affect approximately 200 charter fishing guides and lodges. In these mid-process discussions, the board is working hard to come up with a plan that includes conservation measures and allows for some recreational fishing.
“Nobody wants a closure but if we can sort of mitigate it and find a middle of the road with some access, it’s better than being closed all season,” Lewis said.
As for chinook, DFO has indicated the current option under consideration is closing the Skeena and the Nass to fishing for the start the season and it would only open if there was a dramatic increase in stock.
Conservation is priority number one, then it’s ensuring that First Nation harvesting rights are met for food, social and ceremonial fish.
Richard Sparrow is the natural resources manager for the First Nations Fisheries Council of B.C., who advises a group of technicians who work with many First Nations communities along the Skeena River. During the sockeye closures last year, Sparrow said First Nations took additional steps to protect salmon.
“First Nations are really taking the bull by the horns here in identifying management plans and fishery plans that have conservation in mind,” Sparrow said. One example he offered was using 18 cm or larger mesh size gillnetts to allow sockeye to go through with a small bycatch of sockeye.
The concern though, for both the First Nations Technical Committee and the Sport Fishing Advisory Board, is that while the Skeena Tyee Test Fishery provides in-season estimates, there’s more guesswork when it comes to chinook.
“Using that information to determine a fishing plan for this year, with the lack of information that’s available for identifying a chinook return, as well as run timing, is very concerning for First Nations who are being managed with the lack of information,” Sparrow said.
Experts are now working to improve identifying a run size and where all the stocks of concern are throughout the estuary.
Why stocks are so low
There is no definitive answer for why the sockeye return has dropped dramatically in the past two years.
“It’s hard to know exactly, there’s no one thing. This is felt to be largely a reflection of the poor ocean survival conditions over the past several years,” Masson said.
He then mentioned the “big blob”, the warm water anomaly that produced toxic algae and lingered from 2013-2016 in the North Pacific resulting in poor survival for salmon in the ocean.
“That is largely the driving thing. Could be related to climate change, could be something else,” Masson said.
It’s not all doom and gloom for salmon on the B.C. coast. The Fraser River sockeye return this year is on a fourth year high cycle and Masson said they do anticipate some commercial fishing on that stock. The Somass fishery on the West Coast of Vancouver Island may also have some commercial sockeye opportunities.
Last year, there was little warning before the final decision to close the chinook fishery was made affecting charter businesses with clients already booked.
The key point, Masson said, is that those businesses who rely on recreational fishing in the Skeena and Nass be on notice that a full suite of options is up for discussion.
“We’re really concerned that all of those interests wouldn’t be surprised when final decisions are made toward the end or middle of May,” he said.