Letter: Adams River salmon collapse a man-made crisis

Lowest average return for this cycle

Letter: Adams River salmon collapse a man-made crisis

The results are in for the iconic Adams River sockeye salmon run and they show a very disturbing, sharp decline in spawning numbers.

On Friday, Feb. 8, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) released the near-final estimate for the 2018 late Fraser River run that shows only 535,564 Adams River spawners, far short of the predicted return and just 34 per cent of the average return for this dominant cycle, the lowest on record.

We feared the return was going to be much worse than what was being claimed in the media because we did not see the numbers of fish in the river that should have been there for a return as large as they predicted. Then by mid-October, with most observers witnessing fewer fish on the spawning grounds than should have been there, the experts claimed their predictions would be still close to the target.

The numbers released on Friday clearly tell the story of what happened to the late summer run. Greg Taylor with Watershed Watch Salmon Society has crunched all the information provided by the three responsible management agencies (Pacific Salmon Commission, Fraser River Panel and DFO) into a spreadsheet that shows the details missing from the government’s report. While the pre-season expectation was 7.4-million, the majority of the fishing decisions were based on a 6-million run estimate, which was scaled back to the final estimate of 4.7-million after fishing was concluded. The final total return was only 4.35-million of which nearly 2.7-million fish ended up in the fishing boats.

At the heart of the issue is the management direction, which dictates a goal of maximizing the harvest while playing lip-service to the sustainability of the population, despite the recognition that the all of the late run conservation units are listed with the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada as either “endangered,” “threatened” or of “special concern.” The Pacific Salmon Foundation is the International Management agency that conducts test fisheries to estimate the run size. It provides the data and their recommendations to the Fraser River Panel, which is responsible for designing and implementing the fisheries.

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This year the Panel, which is largely made up of harvesting interests and U.S. and Canadian government representatives, exceeded their planned “allowable exploitation rate” of over 58 per cent on late-run sockeye, with a final rate of 63 per cent. Consequently, only 1,584,580 late summer sockeye returned to spawn, which was just 63 per cent of the dominant cycle average. It was only luck, not good management that the harvest was not greater and the damage to the population more severe, as they were prepared to catch 3.5-million sockeye if they had been able to find the numbers.

Our iconic sockeye salmon are already struggling due to the impacts of climate change, fish farms and loss of habitat. One would think that the management direction should be pre-cautionary and focused on conservation to rebuild the stocks, yet the overall goal continues to be exploitation and the result appears to be a steady decline towards extinction. It appears that industry and DFO learned nothing after they managed the northern cod to extinction and now they are repeating the same mistakes again on the West Coast.

Greg Taylor provides more analysis, “They were aware of the uncertainty and risk inherent in estimating how many late-timed sockeye were delaying in the Gulf. Even understanding this risk they decided to reduce the late-time sockeye ‘management adjustment’ (the number of sockeye added to escapement targets to account for in-river mortality) to near zero. This both decreased any ‘buffer’ they had against such over estimations and increased the number of fish (at least on paper) available to harvest.”

There are solutions available to reverse the downward spiral, but management would have to veer away from commercial fishing influences and the pattern of exploitation that began when the first canneries were built on the coast at the beginning of the last century. Already, Fraser River sockeye salmon fishing only occurs now every four years because of the serious decline in numbers during the non-dominant years.

Prior to European exploitation, the salmon populations were healthy because First Nations fisheries were sustainable. The solution would be to replicate First Nations management by reintroducing known-stock fisheries, which harvests large proportions of the fish near their spawning grounds, where they can be accurately counted, thus ensuring enough fish return to spawn to sustain the stocks before fishing commences.

Jim Cooperman

Shuswap Environmental Action Society


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