Faulty Fraser forecast frustrates BC fisheries

Written By Tom Davis

Hopes for an excellent 2022 Fraser sockeye run were buoyed when early sockeye returns to the Skeena River and the west coast of Vancouver Island came in much stronger than expected. 

The Skeena run “saved the recreational fishery’s bacon,” said Alex Bussman, owner of Oscar’s Fly & Tackle in Smithers. 

Bussman wasn’t alone in his sentiment. This year’s return in the Skeena was 4.3 million sockeye, or two times the 10-year average. Unfortunately, despite a forecast otherwise, salmon didn’t fare as well in the Fraser River, B.C.’s premier sockeye production complex.

The Fraser River sockeye were especially hard hit.

Sockeye hit hard

The Pacific Salmon Commission’s pre-season total run size estimate for Fraser River sockeye was 9.8 million fish. The commission – which sprang from the 1985 Canada-U.S. Salmon Treaty – forecasts annual salmon abundances and negotiates sharing arrangements between the two countries, while each country determines how its fisheries will proceed. 

The system generally works, but not always. 

This year, the U.S. delegation agreed with the commission’s forecast and went fishing. 

Canada disagreed and kept its fisheries closed, with the exception of First Nation’s food, societal and ceremonial fisheries. This led to complaints from commercial fisheries that early season sockeye opportunities were wasted, and that Americans were fishing while Canadian boats remained tied to the dock.

“Canada ignored clear scientific data.”

James Lawson

Canada’s dissenting opinion signaled the start of an unsettling time for Fraser sockeye fisheries, prompting a statement from United Fisherman and Allied Workers Union president, James Lawson,  who urged the Canadian caucus and fisheries department to adopt the commission’s recommended run sizes and “not allow Fisheries Minister [Joyce] Murray’s ultra-conservative management to infect the planning and implementation of Canadian fisheries.”

In the union’s opinion, “Canada ignored clear scientific data,” and “abused the precautionary approach,” Lawson said.

Adams River salmon run. [Photo Nature Trust BC]

Reactions from advocacy groups Watershed Watch Salmon Society and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation illustrate the polarizing nature of fish management issues. 

“[DFO] did the right thing.”

Aaron Hill

The commission forecasts and test fishing data show the fisheries minister and her department “did the right thing” in restricted fishing and that “the Americans should have stood down, too,” Aaron Hill, executive director at Watershed Watch Salmon Society, said in a press release.

Usefulness of treaty questioned

Misty MacDuffee, wild salmon program director at Raincoast Conservation Foundation concurred, then criticized the commission for its work. “This is yet another example of how the Pacific Salmon Treaty is failing to protect B.C. salmon runs that swim through American waters,” MacDuffee said in a news release.

Americans fish early because they only have access to Fraser sockeye when they are in U.S. waters, explained Fiona Martens, the commission’s chief of fisheries management.

Canada’s decision not to fish initially seemed premature – based on the early Fraser sockeye returns – until the sockeye landscape changed. Diminishing test fishing catches eventually forced a reduction in the total run estimate from 9.8 million to 5.6 million sockeye.

As of Sept. 6, the number of Fraser River sockeye harvested reached over one million fish: 741,000 from First Nations fisheries, 318,000 from American fisheries and zero from Canadian commercial and recreational fishers.

Gillnet test fishing by the Pacific Salmon Commission. [Photo Pacific Salmon Commission]

Then, in early September, late-run sockeye estimates began increasing incrementally from 1.4 million to two million, leading the fisheries department to open fishing to both commercial and recreational sectors. 

Catches grow

By Sept. 16, total catches grew to 1.3 million sockeye, with the U.S. taking 318,700, Canadian First Nations harvesting 808,800 fish and Canadian commercial fisheries netting 206,900, plus a 20,000 catch target for recreational anglers.

Stakeholder reactions to these late openings ran the gamut:

  • The department succumbed to commercial fishing pressure.
  • Fishing should not have opened because the commission’s run-size estimates were untrustworthy.
  • The fishery should have opened earlier.

“We will likely never have good sockeye stock forecasting methods. Their life cycle is too complex,” said Dr. Carl Walters, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries.

Walters has published several studies on sockeye population variability recommending best fishing management rules without making the fisheries uneconomical. “DFO largely ignored those recommendations,” he said.          

Dr. Richard Beamish, Order of Canada recipient and retired Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientist, was a driving force behind the joint Canadian, American and Russian winter data-gathering expeditions to the Northeast Pacific beginning in 2019.

Richard Beamish surveyed sockeye and other species on expeditions in the Northeast. [Photo Richard Beamish]

The expedition’s most recent report noted late-run juvenile Fraser River sockeye were two to three times less abundant than they had expected.

“The results from these surveys show their value in predicting future salmon returns,” Beamish said. 

Lessons learned

Despite the confusion and upheaval of the 2022 Fraser sockeye season, a consensus emerged among the various stakeholders consulted: 

  • Pacific Salmon Commission forecasting accuracy could be improved by incorporating analyses from a wider range of sources. However, the commission is a valuable international fisheries organization and not a “stale trade agreement” as MacDuffee characterized it.
  • DFO should develop fishing opportunities with greater precision. Many long-time DFO observers, like retired department senior habitat biologist Brian Tutty, argue the federal government has intentionally moved towards no fishing as a default solution to fisheries management problems.
  • Fisheries and Oceans could do a much better job of creating and managing fishing opportunities.

The fisheries minister also needs to address the shortfalls in enforcement capacity, not only on the Fraser but in other major fisheries, to determine the magnitude and costs of illegal fisheries. Failure to do so will further erode trust and confidence in the department of fisheries, while delaying recovery for threatened salmon species.