The Pacific Salmon Treaty

I don’t know to what extent the average angler gives thought to the management framework that governs the recreational fishery, other than general moaning about this or that decision that seems inexplicable or worse when looked at from sea level. Virtually all participants in the marine recreational fishery, and that for salmon in freshwater, understand that Fisheries and Oceans Canada, almost universally known by the acronym DFO, manages the fishery but I suspect that few anglers understand well the broader picture beyond this.

The management framework that DFO operates with is rooted in a series of policies, for example regarding wild salmon, catch monitoring and allocation between sectors for salmon and halibut, as well as those that are more generalist like the Species At Risk Act, which covers all animals and their habitats in Canada. And beyond these policies management domestically is also guided by treaties with other countries – in the Pacific region Canada is signatory to treaties with the USA on halibut, tuna and salmon and a separate multi-country treaty managing salmon on the high seas.

Of the two Pacific salmon treaties Canada is party to the latter one has less obviously to do with the regional recreational fishery, all the same the activities of the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission are important and for those interested in the big picture regarding Pacific salmon there’s plenty of interesting reading to be found on its website (

The Pacific Salmon Treaty between Canada and the US was first signed in 1985 and has undergone periodic revision since then. The core issue the treaty is designed to address is the harvest in the waters of one country (the “intercepting” party) of salmon originating in the rivers of the other (the “producing” party). Salmon are of course oblivious to the invisible lines on a chart that now define the boundaries of each country and given the hundreds if not thousands of salmon stocks roaming around the nearshore ocean across their range in the northeast Pacific the potential for inappropriate and/or unacknowledged harvest is significant.

The number of examples to describe this issue is large but to cite just a few – the chinook salmon originating in WCVI rivers as well as my own home stock in the Campbell/Quinsam system are classic treaty fish, as far north migrants the majority of these fish are harvested in SE Alaska. The flip side of this is that over the years and regardless of fishery or season, three-quarters of all the chinook salmon harvested outside the surfline along WCVI are of US origin, mostly from Washington and Oregon, but also some from Idaho and California.

Proper management of Fraser River sockeye was a big impetus for the original treaty because in years of a strong outside diversion many of these returning Canadian origin fish traverse Juan de Fuca Strait along the Washington state shoreline; in recognition of this the US now has a defined share amounting to 16% of the annual allowable harvest. A similar issue arises in Washington management area 7 near Point Roberts (thank you Kaiser Wilhelm 1!) in which chum salmon heading for the Fraser River school before heading into freshwater.

Elsewhere the Alaskan Panhandle area is riddled with management challenges whereby most of the salmon that originate in the large rivers like the Taku, Stikine and Alsek that flow into the sea there actually come from Canada. To use but one example, 100% of all chinook spawning in the Taku River do so in Canada yet about two-thirds of all Taku River chinook are caught in Alaska!

The terms of the Pacific Salmon Treaty are implemented by the Commission, which is headquartered in Vancouver, BC. The PSC has its own small staff that work with domestic agency staff and stakeholder representatives from the jurisdictions covered in the geographic remit of the treaty. This covers roughly from Oregon up to the top of the Alaskan Panhandle, outside of which area Canadian origin salmon comprise only a small minority of the catches.

For PSC management purposes this vast geographic range is split into four areas, known as Panels – North, South, Fraser and Transboundary. The first deals with all species of salmon and extends from Cape Suckling, AK to Cape Caution on the central BC coast. The Southern Panel extends from there down to the Oregon/California border and deals with all salmon except pink and sockeye salmon originating from the Fraser River, which are dealt with by the Fraser Panel. The Transboundary Panel primarily deals with boundary straddling issues as briefly described above in the Panhandle area, although in theory it could also deal with the slowly revitalized salmon stocks in BC’s extreme southern interior that originate in rivers (Similikameen, Okanagan) that are part the Columbia River watershed.

Given their range and variety of ocean life histories, for the BC recreational fishery chinook salmon are the most important species dealt with in treaty discussions. As a generalization treaty management of chinook is broken up into two broad categories of fishery – there are three aggregate abundance-based management fisheries (AABM – WCVI, NBC and SEAK) while all others are so-called ISBM or Individual Stock Based Management fisheries.

The PSC has a standing Chinook Technical Committee (CTC) made up of chinook specialists from agencies in both countries and they analyze a broad range of data (total returns, age at escapement, CWT recoveries etc.) from indicator rivers (like the Quinsam) and harvests to estimate both total chinook abundance and allowable harvests in the highly mixed stock AABM fisheries for the year to come. By about April each year these harvest ceilings are then provided to the domestic managing agencies (DFO in Canada) for sharing amongst the various fisheries in each jurisdiction according to their own allocation policies.

PSC management of coho is less complex, however there is a southern abundance-based management regime to which both countries must adhere. Based around a tiered abundance estimate (low, moderate and abundant) to each of which is assigned an allowable exploitation rate ceiling, these can influence not only the management of coho salmon in each country but also fisheries for all other salmon in which coho might be caught incidentally to the target species.

Meetings by the appropriate sections of the Salmon Commission can occur throughout the year but most usually through the winter and spring as post-season reporting and analysis and pre-season planning takes place. Outside of emergencies, the one usual exception to this is that the Fraser Panel meets weekly in-season to review test fishing and other assessment data as the runs of Fraser sockeye and pink salmon develop each summer.

This is just the briefest description of a vitally important process in salmon management, one that can have significant implications for the BC recreational fishery. As with the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission there is lots of interesting information available at the Pacific Salmon Commission website (, please check it out.