Catch Monitoring and the June Creel Survey

Recently the first of the South Coast Creel Survey’s (SCCS) for 2017 was released, covering the month of June. Catch monitoring is an essential element in the proper management of any fishery and given the reservations that several interests have about the recreational fishery in BC an accurate assessment of what we encounter, fish both retained and released, is critical to maintaining meaningful recreational opportunity for the future.

As with so much else in modern fisheries management catch monitoring as an activity has become more formalized in recent years, with a strategic framework detailing goals and objectives being adopted as a regional policy in 2012, with implementation phased in since then. I’ll spare you the details but the SCCS falls under this policy covering all fisheries occurring in the Pacific region.

And, as with so much else concerning management of the recreational fishery, a lack of sufficient funding allocated by DFO to this activity has hamstrung the sufficiently comprehensive operation of creel surveys in recent years even as the department insists they must take place. Commercial fisheries now typically pay for catch monitoring services out of the income generated by their catch but of course the recreational fishery doesn’t have a sale of catch element to it. To cut a longer story short, hope still remains that the federal government will see fit to create a Recreational Vision Implementation Fund in the order of several million dollars per year, specifically to enable key activities like catch monitoring to take place as they should. Any day now ….

That said a first impression of the June 2017 creel survey is that some additional funds have been directed to it compared to a year ago as Areas 17 & 18 (Nanoose Bay down to Satellite Channel near Cowichan Bay) and Areas 28 & 29 (Howe Sound and across the mouth of the Fraser River) were assessed last month, unlike in 2016. An improvement but regrettably Areas 15 &16 continue to be left out, meaning the entire eastern half of the Strait of Georgia from Toba Inlet to the bottom of the Sunshine Coast remains unsurveyed, likely for the entire season as in the past few years.

The core assessment method remains the same, with two key parts. Creel surveyors work at marinas and boat ramps interviewing returning anglers at the end of a fishing trip for such things as duration, location and species and number of fish encountered. Landed catch is easy to assess, teasing out the accurate details of released fish sometimes less so. The other part is the results of overflights conducted by a patrol aircraft (anglers may have seen the dark green twin-engine plane flying low) that counts the number of boats presumed to be fishing. As the recreational fishery has become more diversified away from primarily a salmon fishery this has lead at times to a misleading assessment of catch e.g. boats fishing for halibut or prawns/crabs don’t catch salmon, but with good dialogue between local fishery interests and DFO these things can usually be worked out.

The results from both survey methods are then combined to provide a base estimate of catch and effort. In recent years this has been augmented by trip logbooks being filled out by guides, some lodges and a few ardent anglers who fish regularly. It may not be perfect but it’s the best system given the resources available and importantly the DFO creel survey has been peer reviewed several times and been found to provide information with an acceptable degree of confidence in the end result.

So enough background, what does the June creel survey actually state? All things considered it looks like it has been an encouraging start to the summer recreational fishery in the north Strait of Georgia, with productive chinook fishing being the mainstay. In Area 13 the assessed catch of 4732 chinook is slightly above the previous 5-year average (4691) while the effort (boat trips) is thought to be slightly below the 5-year average, evidence of respectable fishing.
The effort estimate either side in both Areas 12 & 14 is above the previous 5- year average, with chinook catches well above the 5-year average. Fishing must have been particularly good in Area 12 (upper Johnstone Strait, Blackfish Sound and Queen Charlotte Strait) because the estimate of released chinook – 5339 fish – is more than four times the 5-year average there. The creel survey doesn’t differentiate between sub-legal and legal fish but I’m guessing that a high percentage were fish longer than 62 cm.

Coho haven’t been a major factor in our early summer fishery for quite a few years now but I paid particular attention to the coho data in the June creel survey this year because a highly respected fisheries scientist (who shall remain nameless for now) has predicted that there will be more coho in the Strait of Georgia in the summer of 2017 than in any year since 1994. Moreover he was prepared to back up his prediction with a small wager, one that two of us guides in Campbell River took him up on – we’re hoping to lose!

In any event there’s very mixed signals so far, depending upon where you’ve been fishing. Working down island, in Area 12 more than three times the 5- year average number of coho were retained in June and 20 times the average number of coho were released! Hopefully a sign of good things ahead! Conversely, in Area 13 zero coho were assessed as being retained and a tiny number relative to the 5-year average were released. And in Area 14 it was different again with 392 coho being retained, a third of the 5-year average, and half the usual amount of coho being released. Hard to make any firm predictions about the future of coho fishing this summer out of that array of data.

The lingcod catch in these areas was similar to recent past years but halibut has been variable, with about half the usual number retained in Area 12 but almost the exact reverse in Areas 13 & 14, albeit at much lower levels.

Let’s hope the chinook fishing maintains the same level of productivity in the months going forward!