Salmon IFMP and Fraser stream-type chinook

A feature common to all fisheries managed by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) is the development of what is known as an IFMP, an acronym that stands for Integrated Fishing Management Plan. Depending on the species these are of greater or lesser complexity but, in the Pacific region at least, easily the most comprehensive in its scope is the Salmon IFMP.

It actually comes in two sub-regional versions, north and south, with the 2016/17 southern draft IFMP running to 376 pages. Some of this are administrative lists and there’s an increasing amount of contextual information, all the same it takes a lot of print to describe the “integrated” (five species, many separate fisheries) part of a Salmon IFMP. For those interested, copies are available via the Consultations section of the DFO Pacific region website.

Because of this complexity the development of the annual plan takes many months and frequently doesn’t receive ministerial sign-off until late June, when some fisheries are already underway. Most of the actual decision-making takes place in-region but those of real consequence or possible controversy, often both, are made in Ottawa. An example would be the allowable exploitation rate on Interior Fraser coho, especially if this involves change from what has preceded the year to come.

For the 2016/17 southern plan the decision of greatest importance will focus on management of a particular chinook stock but in consideration also of the likely run size of Fraser sockeye this summer, First Nation’s food fishing requirements and the socio-economic size of the affected recreational salmon fishery.

The chinook stock in question are the Fraser River stream-type fish, an aggregate of over fifty individual river stocks so named because they spend over a year in the river after emergence as fry and before migrating to sea, much like coho. These fish come in two dominant ages at maturity, 4 and 5 years, with two run-timing seasons, spring (March to early June) and summer (May to late July).

Compared to chinook in general they have an unusual ocean life-history in that with few exceptions most of this stock migrate out to sea and range far off the continental shelf, as with sockeye, pink and chum salmon. Because of this they are only encountered in fisheries as they return home as maturing adults along southwest Vancouver Island, in Juan de Fuca Strait or in the Fraser River itself; it is thought that comparatively few migrate via Johnstone Strait.

Only one individual stock has coded wire tags applied to some of them, the Nicola 4.2’s, making assessment of their presence in marine waters a particular challenge. Taking tissue samples to provide DNA analysis is growing in use and importance but generally is useful only in a seasonal retrospective. In-season run-size assessment for the age 5 fish occurs via a long-term gillnet fishery at Albion in the lower Fraser. DFO has sufficient confidence in the results of this test fishery to make a projection by mid-June of the range of abundance for that year and uses this information in a three-tiered (Zone 1, 2 & 3; low, moderate & abundant) management framework with different fishery regulations for each of the abundance zones.

This chinook stock aggregate has been in varying degrees less abundant for the past 15 years or more and since 2012 all fisheries encountering them have been increasingly constrained. The WCVI commercial troll fishery is not allowed to fish below Estevan Point in the April – June period and the in-river recreational salmon fishery hasn’t opened until July 1st, months later than not so long ago.

First Nations food fisheries in the Fraser River encountering these fish have also been reduced and the principle marine recreational fishery where these fish are encountered, albeit as a minority of the aggregate seasonal harvest there, in the Sooke to Victoria area and on to the Fraser rivermouth has been managed under a restrictive set of regulations that come into effect March 1st.

As a result of these seasonal restrictions, compared to pre-2012 the marine recreational fishery is estimated to have reduced its harvest of this stock of concern by about 85% when in Zone 1 and nearly 80% in Zone 2. With these significant savings now demonstrated, to avoid persistent uncertainty about what rules will be in place each year the local recreational fishery has proposed an aggregate Zone1/2 management regime, however DFO has to date declined to enact it.

Although they take a large majority of the harvest of these stream-type chinook, citing their constitutional priority for FSC (Food, Social and Ceremonial) requirements First Nations have declined to further lower their harvest rate on them until all other users have ended theirs. The uneasy status quo of the past few years could probably continue without undue effect on the fish, which by and large are on a slowly increasing trend due to the more conservative management in recent years, however this is dependent on First Nations harvesting Fraser sockeye in their FSC fisheries. Regrettably, because of the forecast of a relatively small sockeye run in 2016 that seems unlikely to occur, thus First Nations want to make up the projected shortfall with chinook salmon. And not just in the Fraser River either, for the implications of restricted First Nations FSC fishing for Fraser sockeye will possibly be felt more widely in marine fisheries around southern BC.

Against that background as part of the 2016 Salmon IFMP development process First Nations, along with the Marine Conservation Caucus representing environmental NGO’s in BC, have recommended that the recreational salmon fishery in the Juan de Fuca to Fraser River estuary corridor be closed entirely for May, June and July and that the in-river fishery not open until August 1. Readers can likely appreciate how troubling that outcome would be were it to be put into effect.

DFO has countered with a proposal to keep fisheries that harvest Fraser stream-type chinook managed in a Zone 1 (low) abundance regime, regardless of the actual abundance calculated from the results of the Albion test fishery. The one exception under this proposal would be to allow First Nations additional FSC chinook fishing opportunities should the test fishing indicate a run-size of greater than 45,000 (the Zone 1 to 2 change point) age-five stream-type chinook into the Fraser River.

So this is where things stand in early May, with none of this any great secret having now recently been covered in regional media. The final decision will almost certainly be made by Hunter Tootoo, minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and will be a real test of the objectivity and priorities of the new Trudeau government.