Management of Cowichan River chinook

Despite the generally productive fishing for chinook salmon around BC’s inner south coast this year, 2018 will go down in memory as one of the most challenging for the management of the recreational fishery there. The burning issue early last winter was the expectation that actions would be taken to provide more chinook for Southern Resident Killer Whales, only to be eclipsed in urgency by late winter when DFO announced that it would be creating a management regime for the 2018 season to significantly lower the exploitation rate (ER) on various chinook stocks of concern

The outcomes in both cases were more restrictive to the recreational fishery than logic would indicate with, firstly, a massive finfish closure in Juan de Fuca Strait eliminating hook and line fishing opportunity for all species and secondly, the reduction in the daily limit for chinook salmon from two to one fish per day around the Strait of Georgia (SoG). The reality of these restrictions is more detailed than this brief description allows but against that background, and hard as it may be to believe, DFO has recently taken a decision that in some respects is even more troubling, with ominous implications for the future management of the recreational fishery on Canada’s Pacific coast.

Simply put, DFO has decided to keep in place the now customary restrictions in the north SoG intended to lower the ER on Cowichan River chinook salmon for the remainder of the 2018 season. There is a suite of time and area restricted zones (4 chinook non-retention and 1 finfish closure) in management Areas 13, 14 and 15 and which have been in place since 2006. Three of them are currently in effect (Lambert Channel and Algerine Passage chinook non-retention ending August 15 and the Cape Mudge finfish closure ending August 30) but there was some hope these restrictions would not be implemented at all or, having started, ended early. Apparently not, with DFO indicating that as part of the management planning process for the 2019 season it will “review and discuss removal of these management restrictions in more detail with all stakeholders and First Nations.”

Cowichan River chinook are an important stock on southeast Vancouver Island, with indicator status under the Pacific Salmon Treaty. They typically don’t roam far from home during their ocean lives and when conditions are favourable prefer to stay in the Strait of Georgia, especially the northern half. They are big contributors to the inside recreational chinook fishery and are important to the local First Nation’s food fishery. Although there is some enhancement of this stock the current abundance is largely from natural production with a spawning escapement target of 6500 adults, defined as age-3 or older fish. For some reason this chinook stock also has an unusually large number of age-2 fish returning to spawn but as these are always smaller males they contribute relatively little to production.

After a period of earlier decline Cowichan chinook rebuilt strongly through the 1990’s, with the return peaking at over 14,000 adult fish in 1999. Regrettably it was all downhill after that, with a return in 2009 of considerably less than a thousand adult fish. In response to this rapid decline management measures were put in place in an attempt to reverse the trend, with the implementation in 2006 of large terminal area closures adjacent to the Cowichan estuary and the five restricted zones in the north SoG mixed-stock fishery mentioned earlier. As well, starting in the early 2000’s significant work was conducted in-river to upgrade the habitat and this is thought to have been a major contributor to the current rebuilding trend.

And what a rebuild! Since the low in 2009 the return each fall has steadily increased, meeting the escapement target in 2015 and going more than a thousand adult fish over in 2016. And the return in 2017 was bigger yet, now estimated at 14,698 adult fish or more than twice the spawning escapement target and the outlook for 2018 is similar. Cowichan chinook went from being south coast problem child to gold star status in remarkably short order.

This background is important when considering the decision by DFO this week to keep the remaining restricted zones in the north SoG in effect. There has always been considerable skepticism regarding the effectiveness of these, as anglers have simply learned to fish around them. Acknowledgement of this by DFO stock assessment staff is found in a recent briefing note reviewing sport fishery management for Cowichan chinook that states, “There appears to be no significant change in ER in the northern areas despite 5 spot closures. More analysis is required, but effort appears to have redistributed around the closures with little reduction of impact on stocks of concern.”

The briefing note cites the expected return of Cowichan chinook in 2018 of somewhere between 10 and 15,000 adult fish (or about twice the spawning escapement target), with an additional 2 – 3,000 adult chinook expected as a result of the daily limit reduction for chinook in the Strait of Georgia recreational fishery, an action expected to reduce the exploitation rate on all chinook stocks encountered there by about 30%. The briefing note concludes by stating “The reduction in recreational catch limits is expected to be more effective in reducing the Cowichan exploitation rate than the spot closures” and “There is no evidence which would suggest the expected reduction in ER would change if the northern GST chinook closures were eliminated or adjusted.”

Given all this, one has to question why senior management staff insists on keeping the five spot closures in place because the decision is poisoning the relationship between the recreational fishery and DFO. In light of the other decisions made this year regarding chinook management in the southern BC recreational fishery, which they themselves could easily have been different while achieving the same possible benefits, there is an urgent need for a win-win decision but instead DFO has managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Overshadowing any short-term disappointment at not being able to fish where there’s no good reason not to do so, earlier I described the decision to keep the spot closures as having “ominous implications for the future management of the recreational fishery on Canada’s Pacific coast” If the department can’t bring itself to remove demonstrably ineffective seasonal restrictions far from the river of concern terminal zone, on a stock of salmon with a population trajectory and current abundance that is amongst the best of any in the Pacific region, what hope is there that Canadians can expect rational and objective management of any species in the recreational fishery in the future?


Being guiding season life has been busy for me and once again I regret the absence of timely commentary in this space. Several weeks ago I wrote another piece for the Island Fisherman magazine website, this time on the relative abundance of coho in the Strait of Georgia this summer and the link can be found here:

The State Of Coho 2018

About the only other comment I’ll make about coho right now is in regard to the weather. This extended hot and dry spell amounts to a death sentence for small stream coho and rain can’t arrive quick enough. If coho fishing in 2020 is slow just think back to the weather this summer.