Chinook salmon – today and tomorrow.

With the calendar closing in on the end of the year the traditional time has arrived to start fishing for those tastiest of fish, winter chinook salmon. Most of December had already passed by and I was feeling antsy to get out there to try my luck but between the weather and my schedule the opportunity to go hadn’t quite come about. Late on the 22nd I realized that if I didn’t go early the next morning I wouldn’t be able to until well into the following week, with the medium range forecast giving no assurance that weather and water conditions would be suitable even then. One downside of the winter chinook fishery in my hometown of Campbell River is that it largely takes place out on the edge of the open Strait of Georgia, making the fishery very dependent on the near absence of any southeast wind, frequently a prevailing condition at this time of year.

With little time to arrange for some company I went solo, glad for the excuse to run my boat that spends too much time tied to the dock at this time of year. Electing to fish a larger plug shallower and smaller one deeper, on the inside line I lowered a 5” Tubby Tomic two-thirds of the way down in 160 feet of water off Willow Point, and having done so glanced forward to check my course.
Looking back intending to get a second line in the first one was already pounding hard as a decent fish had jumped on the plug immediately. Five minutes later I had a nice 10+ pound fish in the boat, an early Christmas present. Getting both lines in the water, I headed south pushed along by both a flood tide and a brisk westerly wind, which added to the existing cold.

I like to bleed my fish and so for convenience sake had laid it in the stern over a deck drain outlet while it bled out, and being so cold there seemed no good reason to move it into the locker. No more action was forthcoming and in the absence of encouraging signs like bait showing on the sounder, birds wheeling and diving or of fish on observed in the several other boats fishing nearby, after not too long I began thinking of heading in. With no company to distract me and a building chop the closer to Shelter Point I got, the slop and the cold seemed more than I wanted to endure for long so feeling grateful for a nice fish I ended the trip sooner than usual.

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While still fishing I perhaps not unnaturally kept looking at the fish on the deck and even after more than four decades of catching them the wonder of chinook salmon hasn’t diminished for me. And I got to thinking about all the attention that chinook salmon are getting in BC right even though I suspect the angling public knows little to nothing about the several chinook focused initiatives that are about to get underway or are already so.

One of the chinook stock aggregates in BC that over the past dozen plus years have exhibited a persistent low abundance pattern are the stream-type chinook in the Fraser River. “Stream-type” is a description of a freshwater life history type, meaning the fry spend at least a full year in freshwater after emergence from the gravel and before making it into saltwater; in this they are similar to coho. There are more than 50 individual stocks in this aggregate, with most of them exhibiting an open ocean marine life history, similar to pinks, sockeye and chum salmon. The good news about this is that they are not subject to much risk of harvest but the bad news is that despite considerable restrictions on those few fisheries that do encounter them, for the most part since the turn of the century Fraser stream-type chinook have been struggling to maintain their populations.

Although there are a number of quite distinct chinook stock aggregates from the Fraser River, not all of which are stocks of concern, against this background and as an outcome to input received in development of the 2016/17 Salmon Integrated Fishing Management Plan, primarily from First Nations and environmental NGO’s, DFO announced that it would be undertaking a review in 2017 of Fraser chinook management. Although the review is expected to be broad-based, considering key components of the management approach over the past several years most specifically it will include “an assessment of the impacts of all fisheries on Fraser River chinook using the best available information”. Looking at my salmon I wondered if it might have originated from the Fraser and what implications this review will have on future opportunities to catch such fish.

DFO hasn’t yet said exactly when this review will commence or what stocks would be included – amongst other things the Sport Fishing Advisory Board on behalf of the regional recreational fishery has expressed its belief that the review should restrict itself to the stream-type stock aggregate only, in the interests of time and because there’s a much more comprehensive initiative already well underway called the Southern BC Chinook Integrated Strategic Planning Process (SBCCISPP).

This process started quite sometime ago now, but has been only really been up to speed over the past four years and the hope is that it is close to coming up with a finished product that will guide the future management of SBC origin chinook salmon and their habitats at every life stage. About a decade ago someone had the bright idea that rather than keep dealing with chinook stocks of concern in southern BC on an individual basis why not develop an overarching integrated strategic plan with an objective that accounts for the biological status of the 35 SBC chinook conservation units and their habitats, that addresses the causes of any declines and identifies the management actions necessary to remedy their status where possible. Sounds like a good idea but has proven harder than originally imagined to develop and put into practice.

The guiding principles of the SBCCISPP are found in the federal Wild Salmon and Sustainable Fishing policies – Conservation of wild salmon and their habitats; honoring obligations to First Nations; Sustainable Use and lastly having an open process, meaning decisions will be made in an open and inclusive manner.

I will no doubt have more commentary to offer on both these initiatives in the months ahead, and I haven’t even mentioned yet the re-negotiation of most of the Pacific Salmon Treaty with the US before the end of 2018, the work for which will be heavily chinook focused. All this is to say that when you do catch a chinook salmon it will be worth considering just where it is from and just how the initiatives briefly described here might influence opportunity to catch more in the future.