Fraser sockeye fishery could be shut down for years

Long fishery closure ahead?

Ottawa will cut $10,000 cheques to commercial fishermen to compensate them for low prices and demand for wild salmon during the pandemic, but that is now the least of their worries.

Fraser River sockeye, once the bread-and-butter of the commercial sector, appear to be collapsing – for real this time.

In 2009, low returns were described as a collapse, but the next year, Fraser River sockeye staged a major comeback, with 28 million fish returning, followed by 19 million in 2014.

But now, a new record low is expected, and it’s the third record low in five years. There may be many factors contributing to the poor sockeye returns, but global warming appears to be almost certainly one of them.

The Pacific Salmon Commission (PSC) estimates that only 283,000 sockeye may return to the Fraser River this year – a fraction of the 941,000 in a pre-season forecast, and only one-quarter of what is needed to meet this year’s escapement target.

As a result, there will be no fishing of any kind for Fraser River sockeye this year, including First Nation food, social and ceremonial (FSC) fishing.

“The nations themselves have willingly said ‘We want to conserve these fish,’” said Jordan Point, executive director for the First Nations Fisheries Council. “The worldview is to be looking out for seven generations ahead, so they’re not going to fish on those species because they want to save some for their children and grandchildren.”

Apart from some limited fishing for chinook for FSC purposes, there will be a complete closure for Fraser River salmon, said Fiona Martens, the PSC’s chief of fisheries management.

Joy Thorkelson, president of the United Fisherman and Allied Workers-Unifor union, expects this year’s closure could continue for years.

The first record low was 2016, when just 894,000 Fraser River sockeye returned.

“That was the lowest record at that time, and then 2019 surpassed that,” said Martens. “And this year, unfortunately, is even surpassing that.”

A second consecutive year of under-escapement means that both four- and five-year sockeye populations will be affected. And when that happens, fisheries managers can be expected to shut fisheries down for extended periods.

“If you have a failure one year, and failure the next year, then that means in the future, you have a run that has no four-year-olds and no five-year-olds coming back,” Thorkelson said. “So I think that they will be very, very conservative.”

As for the north coast, escapement targets may at least be met on the Nass River, and returns were just good enough to allow a small commercial fishery on the Skeena River, netting about 22,000 sockeye.

Commercial fishermen will get $10,000 each this year from the federal government to help them with pandemic-related impacts to markets and prices. But if the Fraser River remains closed to commercial sockeye fishing for several years, that could be the final nail in the coffin for many commercial fishermen in B.C.

“Nobody’s seen this coming,” said Bob McKamey, an Area E gillnetter. “A lot of people are at a loss as to what to do with this and the way it’s affecting their life.”

Older fishermen had hoped to sell boats and licences as part of their retirement plans, but many will now be stuck with boats and licences they can neither use nor sell.

“Obviously, when there isn’t any fishing, there’s no demand for fishing boats or fishing licences, so that’s really affected retirement plans of many of the older fishermen on the river,” McKamey said.

Long-term fishery closures may be the only solution 

Pacific salmon returns for 2020 are being declared “a disaster” not just in B.C. but in Alaska as well.

For Fraser River sockeye, poor returns in 2016 meant a weak brood year for the 2020 cohort. Worse, warm ocean temperatures appear to have reduced ocean survival rates: just 0.17%, compared with a long-term average survival rate of 7% for Chilko River sockeye, for example. Fraser River salmon also now face the added challenge of the Big Bar slide, which impeded their migration upstream last year.

Historical patterns suggest a potentially large sockeye return in 2022. But even if that happens, it may be that the Fraser River commercial sockeye fishery will remain shut down.

And that may be just what is needed, according to a recent study published by University of British Columbia (UBC) researchers, who say full closures can result in longer term economic benefits.

Rashid Sumaila, a fisheries economist at UBC, said measures like protecting and rebuilding fish habitat can help stocks recover. But the most effective tool is a complete fishing closure, according to a paper he co-authored recently in Ocean and Coastal Management.

“In most cases, fishery closure generates higher potential economic gains compared to a low-fishing strategy, regardless of the rate of fish stock recovery,” the paper concludes.

In the case of Pacific salmon, which generally have four-year life cycles, such a closure would need to be in effect for one or two complete cycles,  Sumaila said – so four to eight years.

Sumaila’s study says fishery closures can result in a five- to 11-fold increase in economic gains if the fish stocks recover.

“Our results suggest that bearing the short-term economic costs of rebuilding can lead to future economic benefits, which in the long term are an improvement over maintaining the status quo,” the paper states.

Pacific salmon have been more abundant in recent years than in the past. However, that abundance is mostly concentrated in Alaska and Russia. Pink salmon have done particularly well there, and their abundance is at least partly attributable to industrial-scale hatchery production in Alaska, Russia and Japan.

But even in Alaska this year, returns are low in some regions. Bristol Bay sockeye continue to wow people with their staggering numbers, but elsewhere, sockeye, chum and chinook returns are so low this year that some Alaskan communities have urged the state to declare it a “disaster,” according to the Anchorage Daily News.

Ultimately, periods of ocean warming in the Pacific may reduce productivity for southern range salmon, while boosting productivity of more northerly salmon, according to a recent study co-authored by James Irvine, a Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientist, who has studied historical salmon populations throughout the entire Pacific.

The study, published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, estimates that, between 2005 and 2015, the 82 million pink adult salmon produced annually from hatcheries reduced southern sockeye stocks by 15%.

When ocean temperatures increase, it can affect zooplankton production, although there can be variations depending on latitude and competition. Salmon in the southern ranges appear to be affected more than their northern cousins by factors such as temperature, food availability and competition.

“When you have carrying capacity reduced, which happens from time to time, then competition has a greater effect simply because there’s less food out there and there’s essentially the same number of fish,” Irvine said. “When you have warm water conditions and a lot of competition, it’s kind of a double whammy on sockeye. If you go far enough north, warm water conditions are actually good.”

Irvine agrees that a prolonged closure on fishing would help stocks recover, but thinks reducing the amount of hatchery fish produced, especially by Alaska, might have an even greater impact.

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