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Anglers beyond frustrated with another season of chinook closures

[Editor’s Note: This feature was originally published in The Squamish Chief on May 29. A month later, on June 29, Ottawa announced the closure of nearly 60 per cent of commercial salmon fisheries for the 2021 season—following data that showed the 2020 pacific salmon return was the lowest since 1982—a move intended to curb the decades-long decline of pacific salmon stocks it said is due to “a complex combination of climate change, habitat degradation, and harvesting impacts.” The same day, Fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan also announced the Pacific Salmon Commercial Transition Program, a voluntary salmon licence retirement initiative that offers harvesters the option to retire their fishing licences for “fair market value and will facilitate the transition to a smaller commercial harvesting sector,” the government said. 

On July 6, the Public Fishery Alliance held a rally in protest of the closures in front of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Downtown Vancouver office. 

The story follows as originally published.] 

Local sports fishers aren’t mincing words when asked how they feel about the extension of fishing closures for chinook this season in Howe Sound. 

The Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard announcement came mid-May that the closure in place last year on Howe Sound would continue, meaning recreational anglers can’t catch either a wild or hatchery chinook, nor catch and release one. 

“Minister [of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, Bernadette Jordan] and the Liberal government have demonstrated that they are not interested in working cooperatively with the public fishery,” said local angler Dave Brown.

“We are not a priority. Jordan has turned fisheries management into a political exercise to benefit the current government. She has shown no respect for the advisory process. She is not guided by data, has rejected the low-risk assessment of her own pacific region staff.

“She seems determined to dismantle the West Coast public fishery on grounds that remain unexplained.”

Brown, who is  vice-chair of the Squamish-Lillooet Local Sport Fish Advisory Committee, said he and Jason Assonitis, of Bon Chovy Fishing Charters, have had productive meetings with regional Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and regular correspondence with the fisheries minister’s advisor, but to no avail. 

“The process as far as the lead-up to the decision over the course of the reductions ... this year we felt was the best,” Brown said. “We really worked hard to really find out what DFO was looking for to come up with a very sound proposal that had a 99.5-per-cent chance of not encountering any stocks of concern. We went over it in detail and looked over each sample with DFO staff,” he added.

“Why do we go to all this trouble?” Brown asked. 

The DFO did not respond to a request for comment.

 Minister’s response 

The office of fisheries minister Jordan sent the following statements: 

“Pacific wild salmon are disappearing, and our government is taking strong, consistent action to reverse that.”

The minister said she approved a new mark-selective fishery opening in area 16—portions of Sechelt Inlet and Jervis Inlet—”based on low risk of impacts on wild chinook stocks of concern. Areas 12, 13, 15, and 20 to 25, which were opened last year based on their low risk to Fraser stocks, will open again this year.”

“The public fishery is a significant economic driver, and we want to ensure that there are opportunities for them where stocks will allow. This decision was not made lightly, but with the best available science and after consultation, and careful consideration of all mark selective fishery requests. We will continue to take a precautionary approach to all fisheries management decisions, but we know that is not enough,” the statement read, adding that $647 million from Budget 2021 is earmarked for projects that will conserve and revive pacific wild salmon populations. 

“While we are proud to make this historic investment, the need to do so reflects how serious the decline of pacific salmon is right now,” the statement continued. “We will continue to work with First Nations, the public fishery, conservationists and other partners to protect this iconic species, and the communities and livelihoods that depend on it.”

 Show us the data 

Both local anglers said they see plenty of hatchery chinook in local waters. 

They want documented reasons for the decision and said the gap in their trust over the government’s handling of the fishery is growing. 

The Sport Fishing Advisory Board, the advisory board to the DFO, has asked for something in writing that explains why Area 28/Howe Sound was closed. 

They have never received it. 

(The board wrote an open letter to the Fisheries Minister on May 21, which echoed and expanded on the concerns of Brown and Assonitis.)

“Why can’t we get something in writing? They will give a 10,000-foot answer, but if you are going to close an area because of stocks of concern, at least be able to formally defend it. This can be said about almost all the proposals, there is no formal reason or defence why these areas were closed. This is a tell-tale sign,” Assonitis said.

Three years ago, anglers were allowed to keep two chinook a day, had a 15-fish annual limit and a 30-fish limit for fishing outside waters. Now it is down to closures from April 1 to Sept. 1. 

“We are picking up breadcrumbs compared to what we had before, in terms of access to fishing,” he said. 

The decision is not supported by data or science, posited Brown and Assonitis—a mantra they have repeated numerous times over the last three years. 

Both collect fish data for the DFO as part of the Avid Angler program. 

“We would be the first ones to hang up our rods, but we can see that there should be sustainable opportunities, and that is why we are maintaining this over and over again,” said Assonitis, adding that fishers want to be part of the solution, but see no reason why there can’t be selected areas of the South Coast and the waters around southern Vancouver Island, Howe Sound and Vancouver where they could catch one hatchery chinook and have no impact on stocks of concern. 

Brown said this option would be sustainable and beneficial for small businesses that rely on the fishery, which are already hurting from the dual blow of the closures and the pandemic. 

“It would provide socio-economic opportunities,” Brown said. 

Instead of a strong recovery plan, they said, sport fishers are being held up as “some kind of trophy” to show that they have been taken off the water, to show something is being done. 

“So, the fish are going to come back, and that is simply not true. The reductions in sports fishing are not the solution,” he said. “It is optics.” 

 Biologist weighs in 

Misty MacDuffee, lead fisheries biologist at environmental advocacy group Raincoast Conservation Foundation, agreed that just focusing on sports fishers isn’t the solution for stocks of concern and that more needs to be done to help recovery. 

“I completely agree with that,” said MacDuffee. “It is just one part of a plan. We have to address where mortality is occurring. If there is going to be an acceptable level of mortality for at-risk populations, that has to be worked out and all the fisheries would have to comply with that level of mortality.”

She added that the way coho has been managed could serve as an ideal example for managing chinook. 

“There was a limit on how much and where coho could be caught in the inside of Vancouver Island,” she said. 

“It is the need for a bigger recovery plan where ceilings of mortality are determined for areas, and once that ceiling is reached, that fishery closes. But I completely agree that it does need to be part of a plan … The unreported, illegal and unregulated fisheries in the Fraser are a part of the problem and we need more selective fisheries through the Fraser. I agree [with the anglers] that those are important components.” 

But, said MacDuffee, there is evidence of stocks of concern in Area 28 and she has seen the reports that show it.

She pointed to the publicly available report from February, “DFO Draft Chinook Evaluation Framework.”

It says the Howe Sound, Area 28 decision was based on an “evaluation of coded-wire tag (CWT) data in the area from 1979 to 2019 and DNA data collected from recreational fisheries from 2014 to 2019.

“The data suggest Fraser stocks of concern are encountered in the proposed fishing area from April through August, though likely in small proportions relative to other stocks in the area.”

MacDuffee notes the bigger issue is uncertainty around what fish are in the area.

“Uncertainty around that and the low number of samples and the rigour of the data collection to date,” she  said.

“There are scientific reasons for concern,” she added, pointing to the study, “An integrated model of seasonal changes in stock composition and abundance with an application to Chinook salmon.”

And MacDuffee disagrees that catching marked hatchery fish is the solution.

“It sounds logical, ‘we only want to catch the marked fish’—the hatchery fish —the other problem in Howe Sound is there is a low mark rate.

“So you have got to release a lot of fish, potentially, for being able to keep a marked fish. There’s mortality that has to be ascribed to those released fish.”

 Marked selected fishery 

Anglers have long called for a 100-per-cent marked selected fishery for hatchery fish in B.C., as is done in Washington state. However, MacDuffee said that Washington depends on hatchery fish for its fishery, thus the extensive marking system. 

“That is a big issue for British Columbians who want wild salmon on the landscape — valuing these fish for more than just picking them off in the marine environment,” she said.

“We are valuing them for their ability to feed wildlife, to spawn throughout their historic watersheds, to be part of a landscape that British Columbians define as supporting wild salmon.

“If we go down that hatchery road ... it comes at the cost of recovering wild salmon.” 

If marking is part of a vast and comprehensive plan of recovery, then MacDuffee agrees with a marked selected fishery, but not if it is just for fishers to catch them. 

“We need to really define what the objectives are, and if those objectives are to recover wild populations then there needs to be the corresponding curtailment of fisheries and restoring of habitat; if that is the objective, then hatcheries are part of the solution,” she said. “They are part of restoring habitat, they are part of restoring relevant fisheries and then they are part of supplementing a really at-risk population.”

 Monitoring 

MacDuffee said there needs to be better monitoring of sport fishing. 

“We need a better monitoring plan for how fishing is undertaken,” she said. 

“That has always been the focus of the commercial fishery: they are under the microscope on meeting the requirements of Fisheries, but increasingly it is turning to the recreational sector because increasingly that recreational sector is acting like a commercial sector. It is a lot of guides and there is a commercial component to this.” 

The solution, she said, is for the sport fishery to come up with a monitoring plan that is more in line with a commercial plan. 

“How do we undertake the rigour of monitoring that is going to satisfy public and scientific concern? It is not something they have ever wanted to do,” said MacDuffee. “They have always maintained that they were a recreational fishery … but increasingly they are not just individuals who are going out; there are jobs that are dependent on this fishery and because of that, it needs to meet the scrutiny of a commercial fishery.” 

 What’s next? 

The anglers said they will continue to fight the regulations for Howe Sound and Area 28. 

“There is such a significant level of politics in this that we have to continue to stand up, otherwise we will just be washed downstream and that is what I think they want us to do. But the more that this goes on, the more of a developed plan is happening behind the scenes from the public fishery. People are frustrated and they are seeing through the lies from this government,” Assonitis said. 

The issue is bigger than just our area, said Assonitis and Brown, explaining that anglers are having access issues on the Skeena, and Fraser rivers, for example. 

“If the government is going to conduct itself this way in B.C., we can see that transferring across the country and we can also see access for other activities being impacted this way. It is not accessible,” Brown said. 

Both men encourage supporters of the public fishery to join the Public Fishery Alliance and call their MP and express concern about the fishery, and reach out to Minister Jordan’s office.