The Pacific Salmon Treaty (PST) is under fire following a report suggesting that Alaskan fisheries are impacting struggling salmon populations by intercepting significant numbers of fish bound for of British Columbia.
Commissioned by the Watershed Watch Salmon Society and the SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, the report was released on January 11, alongside the United States and Canada’s annual review of bilateral management under the treaty.
Supporters say it came as no surprise and that to see change the public needs to lobby on both sides of the border.
Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation Director of Natural Resources Saya Masso said the issue of Alaskan fisheries intercepting BC’s endangered populations is something that’s “rather mal” treated on behalf of Canada under the Pacific Salmon Treaty.
“We have been aware of this management problem for some time,” he said.
In recent years, salmon numbers in British Columbia have reached record lows. Only two wild chinook salmon returned to the upper Kennedy watershed in 2021, meaning the population has seen a 98% decline, according to the Central Westcoast Forest Society.
Aaron Hill, executive director of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, said the report sparked conversations with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), but he does not hope the government will address the issue.
The issue has now fallen into the hands of Global Affairs Canada, which is “balancing a whole range of issues”, said Greg Taylor, fisheries adviser to Watershed Watch and one of the report’s authors.
“It would be naive to have expectations that Canada will suddenly make a change or force Alaska to make substantial changes to its fishery,” he said.
More than the funding needed for a solution
Claire Teichman, press secretary to Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray, said the department knows “how important it is to protect and restore the Pacific salmon population”.
“That’s why our government has committed $647 million to the Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative,” she said. “This is the largest investment Canada has made in salmon.
Hill said it would take more than funding to fix the problem.
“The solution for these interceptor fisheries in Southeast Alaska is to move them to areas where they only target Alaskan fish,” he said. “Alaska’s constitution prohibits overfishing. They must apply this same principle to fish originating in British Columbia that migrate through their waters.
Under Alaska law, it would be illegal “if they did to Alaskan fish what they do to our fish,” Hill said.
Doug Vincent-Lang, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), criticized the report saying it was an “unfair and biased attack on salmon fishing in Alaska. “.
Management of Southeast Alaska’s salmon fisheries is consistent with the Pacific Salmon Treaty, he said.
Taylor said the report does not dispute that.
“If you look at the world through the prism of the treaty, they respect the treaty,” he said. “They’re probably fishing less than the treaty allows…but if you look at it from a conservation perspective, they’re fishing very heavily on our populations, to the point where they’re taking significant proportions of our populations and limiting or eliminating the ability of our fishermen to fish.
No endangered salmon in Alaska
Of the 62 salmon populations assessed by the Canadian Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife, 41% are listed as endangered, 18% are threatened, 14% are special concern, 5% are extinct, and only 18% are not endangered. peril. , Taylor said.
Alaska, on the other hand, has no stocks listed under the Endangered Species Act, said ADF&G fisheries scientist Dani Evenson.
“It’s partly because we were developed later,” she said. “But part of that is also because we have very aggressive policies in the state of Alaska.”
Since 1959, sustainable fishing in Alaska has become the law after the state enshrined it in its constitution.
“We monitor all of our inventory,” Evenson said. “We know exactly what happens during the season, after the .125 and .375 season we forecast so we can target our fisheries accordingly. Under the treaty, our obligations are a little different.
The treaty requirements for each species and region are different, but all are designed to accomplish the same thing “to share the burden of conservation and available harvesting,” she said.
Despite this, Evenson said the report needed “more due diligence.”
“It’s one way,” she said. “They did not report on the Canadian interception of US stocks.”
According to the Pacific Salmon Commission, the commercial fishery for mixed Chinook salmon continues in northern British Columbia and off the west coast of Vancouver Island.
“The interception net fishery in British Columbia has largely been halted to protect Canadian salmon,” Taylor said. “What remains of the fishery has been moved to a terminal to reduce interceptions.”
Interceptions on both sides of the border
The Pacific Salmon Commission (PSC) is a regulatory body that was formed to assist in the implementation of the Pacific Salmon Treaty. Employed by the United States and Canada, the commission relays information between countries, convenes meetings and publishes reports.
In 1999, PSC Executive Secretary John Field said the treaty had moved from rigid harvest limits to abundance-based management, reflecting countries’ emphasis on sustainability.
Field said while there are no listed endangered chinook populations in the state of Alaska, there are numerous listed chinook populations in Puget Sound and the Columbia River.
“It’s the stocks listed in Puget Sound and the Columbia River that are intercepted in Canadian fisheries,” he said. “Canada intercepts fish from Washington and Oregon, and Alaska intercepts fish from British Columbia and the southern United States.”
Due to Alaska’s geography, Field said the state typically doesn’t see its fish intercepted as heavily in southern regions.
“This picture that’s being painted of Alaska as this unstoppable juggernaut intercepting everybody’s chinook from Canada is just plain wrong,” Field said. “They took action in Alaska to protect Canadian-origin salmon to the point of shutting down the fishery for years by the Yukon.”
Fisheries science isn’t rocket science, Field said. “It’s much more difficult,” he added.
It doesn’t serve Alaska to overfish other stocks, Evenson said.
“We want to harvest in proportion,” she said. “The goal is to ensure the long-term sustainability of all these stocks, because that’s what pays dividends in the fisheries.”
According to the PSC, 2019 and 2020 saw two of the smallest Fraser River sockeye runs in the past 100 years.
These staggering numbers prompted former Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan to shut down 60% of the commercial salmon fishery in British Columbia in June 2021.
But while Canadian fishing boats sat idle, the report argues that in recent years commercial catches of salmon bound for Canada have been higher in Alaska than in Canada.
At the Pacific Salmon Commission’s annual meeting in Vancouver in late February, Field said Xeni Gwet’in First Nation elected chief Jimmy Lulua spoke to the commission about the report during the period. of public consultation.
“That was the only time the report emerged during the commissioners’ discussions at the meeting,” Field said.
Teichman maintained that “DFO officials are actively working with their U.S. counterparts through the Pacific Salmon Commission to share information on fishery harvests, environmental changes, and the achievement of conservation goals under the treaty.” “.
The treaty was formed to balance interceptions, Taylor argued. It was not trained to conserve or restore depleted populations, he added.
“We have a process as a treaty that’s really not designed to do the job anymore, and it can’t anymore,” Taylor said. “To expect him to do so, in his current format, would be insane.”
‘Interception fishing’ caught millions in 2021
The District 104 fishery, which is located outside of the Alaska panhandle, is what Hill described as the “worst culprit” for catching large numbers of a variety of fish species. Canadian salmon.
In 2021, an estimated 10.7 million pink salmon, 495,000 sockeye, 20,000 chinook, 130,000 coho and more than 212,000 chum were caught in the District 104 fishery alone, the report reads.
“The proportion of Canadian salmon in the catch and the certainty of the estimates vary by species,” the report adds.
Taylor said District 104 exists as a “mixed-stock fishery and interceptor fishery.”
Alaskan pink salmon migrate past the District 104 fishery while moving to their spawning streams further inland, he said.
Even if the fishery shifted, Taylor argued, District 104 would be able to fish the population it claims to be targeting.
“The only thing they wouldn’t catch anymore is our fish,” he said.
But moving the District 104 fishery to inland waters so it can focus on runs to Alaska would present a ‘significant challenge’ as it would be unable to target the more abundant wild Alaskan pink salmon. , Evenson said.
“That’s where the pink salmon are and where the harvest potential is,” she said. “Moving this fishery to inland waters would likely mean scooping up other stocks of all species.”
When a treaty only has two countries, there’s an inherent veto power given to each country when negotiating language and mandates, Field explained.
“In the case of the District 104 fisheries, the agreed wording of the .125to.375 treaty allows Alaska to continue its fisheries in particular areas,” Field said.
This puts the Canadian government in a “very difficult position,” Taylor said.
“We’re not going to make these changes through the Canadian government, we’re not going to make these changes through the treaty – but maybe we can make them through the marketplace,” he said. he declares.
Taylor has worked in BC’s seafood industry for more than 30 years and said this is the first time he’s come across a “rather simple solution to reducing Canadian fish bycatch by 50 or 60%.
“It costs Alaska nothing in terms of harvesting its own fish,” he said. “But the impact would be significantly reduced on Canadian fish.”
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