2017 Salmon Outlook

One of the useful initiatives that DFO started some years ago is the development and release late in the fall of a paper called the Salmon Outlook, a first estimate of salmon abundance in the Pacific Region for the year to come, and earlier this month the 2017 Outlook was made public. It really is a high level overview, containing no formal forecasts for those salmon stocks that receive such treatment, for example Fraser sockeye, but it contains provisional escapement estimates in the current year and allows the reader to compare each of the 95 stock aggregates with the ranking given the year prior.

Each stock aggregate, or Outlook Unit as they are described in this paper, is given a 1 to 4 ranking – Stock of Concern, Low, Near Target and Abundant – and because the Outlook Units are comprised of aggregates of individual river salmon stocks many of them are given a split ranking i.e. a 1/2, 3/4 etc. The comments section contains background information on trends in survival and big picture events such as El Nino that affect these, as well as recent escapement levels. Each category ranking has an associated “Fisheries Expectations” providing a generalized description of the potential fisheries consequences of each outlook category. Also, when thinking about fishing opportunities it is important to remember that the Outlook is only about Canadian salmon stocks so in those areas of the coast where US origin fish are significant contributors to the catch they, obviously, aren’t included.

Of all the Canadian salmon stocks that will be present around the southern BC coast in 2017 only four have an unambiguous category 4 ranking and encouragingly three of these are sockeye stocks originating from different parts of the Fraser River watershed. The other category 4 ranking is for Fraser River chum salmon, an important sign for opportunities next fall.

As the most important species to the regional recreational fishery, it will come as no surprise to many readers that chinook and coho salmon are less favourably ranked, with persistent less than great survival trends continuing for many stocks – a range of category 1’s,1/2’s, 2’s and 2/3’s. That said there are some encouraging signs and for example the provisional 2016 escapement estimate for the Interior Fraser coho stock aggregate is a considerable improvement over the disastrous 2015 return and possibly close to the escapement goal of 40,000 fish. With little or no directed fishing for almost 20 years for wild coho in those times and areas in which these fish are thought to be prevalent, this is the stock aggregate around which the management of all salmon fisheries for the other species are structured, in order to minimize their mortality impact on IFR coho.

In general, other than those coho stocks originating in rivers along the west coast of Vancouver Island (WCVI), SBC origin coho seem stuck in a persistent low productivity regime. These fish, once the backbone of the Strait of Georgia recreational fishery, appear to be highly susceptible to even small changes in marine conditions during their first six months at sea. As well, with their extended freshwater residency requiring fry to survive through a complete summer the warming and at times dryer climate is doing these particular salmon no favours even before they make it to the ocean and this is particularly true of fish originating in the countless small streams around the region. Expect coho retention opportunities around the inner south coast to continue to largely depend on hatchery origin fish, identified by a missing adipose fin.

Another encouraging development is the continued rebuilding of the Cowichan River chinook stock, with the 2016 return looking very likely to have reached the spawning escapement target of 6500 adult fish for the first time in almost twenty years. The qualifying words relate to the extended high water this past fall that reduced the ability to monitor the return in-season and work is still underway collecting and analyzing the results of the mark recapture escapement assessment program. All the same there is little doubt that the improving survival trend experienced over the past half-dozen years continued and expanded, complemented with a large return of jacks (age-2) fish, usually a positive sign for the adult return in the year ahead. I am hopeful, if not entirely confident, that this should lead to a relaxation of some of the time and area restrictions in the Strait of Georgia recreational fishery intended to lower the harvest rate on these fish.

And in my home Campbell/Quinsam watershed the chinook return in 2016 is also estimated to be the largest in quite a few years. As a chinook indicator stock under the terms of the Pacific Salmon Treaty with the USA considerable effort is expended to try and account for every fish that returns each year but, as with the Cowichan River, assessment efforts were badly compromised by extended high water flows. Even so DFO is estimating 8,000 chinooks made it back this fall and that is likely a conservative number, although the positives from the increased return will be offset by reduced spawning success due to the high water, and this is especially true in the Campbell River itself.

Over on the WCVI there’s a continuation of the same basic trend for chinook originating in the rivers there that’s been present for quite a few years – wild, mostly smaller river, stocks are stuck in a continuing low abundance regime (Outlook category 1) while the enhanced stocks are doing considerably better with an Outlook category 3 for 2017. One of the important signs for the coming year from the past is that many salmon that went to sea in 2013 did well (age-4 chinooks and chums in 2016) so there should be good numbers of age-5 fish in 2017. It could be the best season in a while for larger chinook salmon both on the west coast and around the inner south coast where these fish may be encountered – Tyee Club fishery participants take note!

Next year should see good numbers of pink salmon around, especially being an odd numbered year there will be a return to the Fraser River, for which stock is given a category 3 ranking. As noted earlier the Fraser chum return is expected to be strong but all the other inner south coast chum stock aggregates have received a category 3 ranking indicating there should be plenty of chum salmon around next fall.

So that’s the preliminary Salmon Outlook for 2017; as escapement information is finalized and additional ocean indicator development takes place the rankings may be adjusted but not likely in a significant way. The emergence of a moderate La Nina ocean climate event this year is good news for salmon survivals so there is quite a bit to be hopeful about for the year ahead.