End of year writings in spaces such as this often, almost by tradition, look back at the year just gone by. I’ve done exactly that in the past but it seems to me that enough has been written about 2017 already and so I’m going to look ahead at the year about to come. My crystal ball isn’t any better than anyone else’s but it’s no bad thing to be aware of what lies ahead and what some possible outcomes might be.
With the persistent low productivity of coho across the southern part of their range and the on-going fishery restrictions for them the main focus for salmon anglers in 2018 will continue on chinook salmon. Despite strong returns to many rivers around Vancouver Island this past fall and productive fisheries in many areas, in the big picture all is not well in the chinook world and several initiatives are underway that could impair recreational opportunity in the year(s) ahead.
The most high profile is the issue of chinook as prey for the Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) population. The federal government has made clear that it soon will be making changes to management of chinook fisheries in some parts of the south coast. A linked issue is that some of the most important chinook stocks for SRKW, the Fraser spring and summer-run stream-type fish, are themselves in a very depressed state, despite a decade old effort to minimize the already low impact of fisheries in Canada on them.
The future survival of SRKW’s is a race against time as the demographic trend for these creatures is not positive, however no amount of restrictions to fisheries in an attempt to conserve chinook will have the desired effect if governments don’t also somehow lessen the noise pollution in their underwater environment that appears to be a major impediment to the ability of these creatures to hunt successfully. Faced with a public demand to be seen to be doing something, anything, that secures the long-term survival of SRKW’s anticipate changes to fisheries management for chinook in parts of these killer whales key summer range around southern Vancouver Island.
Although there has been considerable discussion in the media over the past two decades about the declining state of sockeye salmon from the Fraser River, centered around four separate inquiries and most especially the last one by Judge Cohen, the state of the chinook resource in this huge watershed has so far largely escaped the kind of attention periodically focused on sockeye. This will likely change in 2018 as DFO has initiated a review of its management practices for chinook originating from the Fraser River.
Announced in late 2016 it has been slow to gather momentum but propelled by various issues, including desperately low returns of stream-type chinook this past summer, the review will now get underway. Because the management of all fisheries that encounter Fraser origin chinook in Canada will be under scrutiny recreational fishing interests lead by the Sport Fishing Advisory Board will be involved. Hard to predict what the outcome(s) of this exercise will be but DFO is hoping that this exercise will guide decision making for the 2018 season.
And if that wasn’t enough, stand by for more. Against a background of persistent localized chinook stock of concern management responses all around southern BC from time to time – think Cowichan, WCVI, interior Fraser – about ten years ago somebody in DFO had the bright idea of developing a more harmonized response process for all BC chinook stocks originating from rivers entering the sea south of Cape Caution on the central coast. Nice concept but not easy to put into practice, however after a false start or two what is now called the Chinook Strategic Planning Initiative (CSPI) will in 2018 be providing advice on the longer term management of chinook, including in fisheries, for the foreseeable future.
The CSPI is one of, if not the, first of what is known as a Tier 2 government-to-government process – federal and First Nations – in which other interested parties are able to participate. To the extent that their volunteer time has allowed several long-time members of the SFAB have been involved in both the Steering and Planning Committee and the Technical working group, making sure that the perspective of our fishery is available where needed.
The basis of this work is rooted in the Wild Salmon Policy, the primary goal of which is to restore and maintain healthy and diverse salmon populations and their habitats for the benefit and enjoyment of the people of Canada. In the case of failing populations the WSP is buttressed by the Species At Risk Act, designed to prevent wildlife species and their habitats from being extirpated or becoming extinct. As part of the WSP and based on a wide range of individual characteristics (genetic, geographic, fresh and salt water life-histories etc.) all salmon species in Canada have been categorized into what are known as Conservation Units (CU’s). Colour coded on a declining scale of abundance from green through amber to red, of the 27 SBC chinook CU’s the regrettable truth is that a concerning number are red meaning stock of concern, some acutely so.
I don’t need to get into greater detail on this initiative now but anglers should be aware of this work and that some form of overarching management framework for chinook salmon in southern BC will be coming into effect sooner than later.
Although as noted earlier the declining abundances of Fraser sockeye have been a cause of concern for nearly 20 years there has been one exception to this trend, the return of late summer-run fish on the 2002/2006/2010/2014 line, and so there are great hopes for this cyclical bonanza to continue in 2018. As predominantly 4-year old fish at maturity sockeye returns used to be quite predictable but no longer so, and given the declining performance of the other three cycle lines in recent decades if the return this coming summer supports widespread fisheries it will almost be a case of defying gravity as it were. Anything close to recent cycle line returns will be of enormous benefit to First Nation and commercial fishing communities and will be a welcome addition to recreational fishing opportunities in the summer of 2018.
In context of the season ahead there isn’t much to be said about that one-time mainstay of the SBC recreational fishery, coho salmon. Despite two-decade old prohibitions on directed fishing for wild coho they continue in a depressed state, with only occasional spikes in abundance followed by a return to stock of concern status. Expect retention opportunities around southern BC to be restricted to hatchery fish only other than in a few time and area limited exceptions, for example in Johnstone Strait or inside the surfline on WCVI. One encouraging sign is that at years end a relative abundance of young coho, what used to be called “bluebacks”, is reported from the central Strait of Georgia. It is unlikely these fish will exit the strait now and so might well be a welcome addition to the inside recreational fishery come June.
For all the wrong reasons steelhead are finally being discussed more broadly outside the diminishing circle of devotees who care about these special members of the salmonid family. I won’t say more other than to highly recommend becoming a subscriber to the excellent blog by Bob Hooton (https://steelheadvoices.com). After a career as a steelhead biologist for the provincial government and in response to the ever-worsening plight of these fish his undiminished passion for and commitment to them has found voice in the modern fashion – you will find no better.
So 2018 will be a challenging year for the recreational fishery in parts of southern BC but all the same I think there will be lots of good fishing to look forward to. I’m always optimistic – an attribute essential to any fisherman! – and despite what lies ahead there will be more good days than not on the water in the year to come.