Of chinook and sockeye management

In my last column I described the situation concerning the management of Fraser stream-type chinook and what might trigger a change to recreational fishery regulations in the eastern Juan de Fuca Strait to Fraser rivermouth “conservation corridor”.

Around my home area in Campbell River and, I’m quite certain, elsewhere concern has been expressed that restrictive regulations related to this issue might more widely come into effect also. This has occurred because the corridor does in fact traverse the very bottom end of the Strait of Georgia (SoG). As this issue has started to get coverage in mainstream media it has been reported the area affected by the possible closure of the recreational salmon fishery “includes the Strait of Georgia” without describing what small part would actually be covered in any regulatory action should it occur.

This descriptive imprecision by media that knows little about BC’s recreational fishery can cause enormous social and economic consequences and the reporters bear a real responsibility to understand the story, get their facts right and present it in a way that is accurate. Anything less and such erroneous reporting will cause real harm to coastal communities, in this case around southern BC’s inner coast.

As for the core issue itself there has been no further development to date. The recreational chinook fishery between Sherringham Point west of Sooke over to the Fraser rivermouth is currently being managed under the same regulations as for the past several seasons at this time of year with a mix of both minimum and maximum size limits, the differences depending whether fishing east (SoG) or west (JdF) of Cadboro Point. Anglers in eastern Juan de Fuca Strait can currently keep two chinook per day up to 67 cm. or hatchery chinook only (missing adipose fin) longer than 67 cm. In the Strait of Georgia section of the conservation corridor anglers can keep two chinook a day but only one of which (hatchery or wild) can be longer than 67 cm. Not much of a spread between that and the SoG minimum size of 62 cm!

Ordinarily the next development would stem from results of the Albion test fishery in the lower Fraser River with an announcement in mid June regarding further changes. This year, who knows, with the uncertainty itself having negative consequences for the fishery and its supporting infrastructure.

The maximum size limits are intended to minimize the catch in these areas of Fraser stream-type chinook and are especially effective for the spring-run fish. Because of their relatively long freshwater residency as juveniles and their early run-timing back into freshwater as maturing adults the age 4 class never get very big – twelve pounds is a large one and quite a few weigh less than ten pounds.

Despite the preponderance of historical information indicating that virtually all Fraser stream-type chinook head for the river via Juan de Fuca Strait after making landfall on the southwest Vancouver Island shore, a number of First Nation and environmental groups have recommended to DFO that additional constraints be placed on the recreational fishery for chinook more widely in the Strait of Georgia. These range from a hatchery only (missing adipose fin or Mark Selective Fishery, as with coho) retention or lowering the annual limit to significantly increasing the geographic coverage of the inside chinook conservation corridor (not to be confused with the original corridor, along the west coast of Vancouver Island, relating to a different chinook stock aggregate).

In part this suite of recommendations is a response to the expectation that in 2016 there will be few Fraser sockeye available for First Nations to harvest as food fish and so want to make up the anticipated shortfall with chinook. Both the Salmon Allocation Policy and the Constitution are clear on the hierarchy of allowable harvest and their thinking is that if First Nations require more chinook then other users will have to harvest less.

Twenty some odd years ago, when the Fraser sockeye stock as an aggregate started first started to fall away from the customary four and five yearly cycles of abundance, it would have been hard to imagine the consequences to the recreational fishery of what a low return of these fish might actually mean.

Since then the Fraser River freshwater fishery for sockeye has become a very important fishery whenever abundance permits, which in recent years is less and less frequently. Not so long ago anglers in the ocean were able to keep sockeye all the time but no longer – essentially the marine recreational fishery for Fraser sockeye now doesn’t occur unless there are commercial opportunities also.

And the first harvest to occur is the First Nations food fishing, in both salt and freshwater, with an entitlement of approximately one million sockeye in recent years. With a number of “ifs” that might almost be achieved in 2016 – if the various run-timing groups reach or exceed the 50% probability threshold, and if those weaker run-timing groups are not too intermingled with the stronger runs to allow the desired harvest.

Given the recent year history of uncertain returns of sockeye to the Fraser River that’s a scenario that doesn’t inspire great confidence about outcomes in the summer ahead. Fingers crossed ….