Sunday, 18 February 2018

DFO Has Failed Chinook and Sport Anglers – Let’s Improve

If anyone doubts DFO’s stewardship of BC’s iconic animal, the salmon, has been anything other than derrilection of duty, just look at a morning’s catch of Nahmint River chinook by a bunch of sport fishers just like us. As you can see, such catches were common in the 1960s. Note that in the middle, just beside the camera flare, is Jimmy Gilbert, famed Saanich Inlet guide, of whom I will have much to say in upcoming articles.

The Nahmint River, in Albernia Inlet, is just one river, but it had a great reputation because its fish had great numbers of 50 pound chinook, and lots of fish. They are pretty much all gone now, and as DFO is responsible for salmon in BC, they have overseen the destruction of this and many other runs without doing anything about sustaining their numbers.

Victoria area sport fishers have watched fish drop in numbers for decades. I have letters to the minister going back to the ’60s, a time when DFO said coho could not be caught by sport fishers because they did not bite lures. Hmm. Now, our summer fishing is compromised because DFO is watching, but not doing freshwater habitat restoration or enhancement, of low Fraser River 4/2s and 5/2s. They dwindle in numbers to alarming levels. We have had restrictions for several years now.

And we all know that the Southern Resident Killer Whale, only 76 individuals, are not doing well, to some extent because chinook are in such low numbers. Rather than beefing up chinook numbers, DFO proposes closing sport fisheries to protect them. See the PDF:  Discussion Paper: February 15, 2018, Proposed 2018 Salmon Fishery Management Measures to Support Chinook Salmon Prey Availability for Southern Resident Killer Whales. I attach it to the email. You are asked for comments.

Of interest, while the SRKWs can range from California to Alaska, their main spring and summer feeding grounds are: “the transboundary waters of Haro Strait, Boundary Pass, Juan de Fuca Strait, and southern portions of the Strait of Georgia (also referred to as the Salish Sea). This area is identified as Critical Habitat (the habitat required for survival and recovery of the species) in the SARA RKW Recovery Strategy.”

SRKW are known to feed primarily on chinook and chum. During the summer, runs of both are coming home through Juan de Fuca and Georgia Strait, with chum a bit later. I have seen them feed on other things, but we all know from fishing, that once they pass you, fishing ends for several hours before salmon once again will bite. They obviously can sense killer whales in the area, presumably by echolocation and you pack up your gear and move five miles ‘upstream’ of where the killers are coming from, fish, and then return hours later.

The scat scientists are sent out to find the scat, scoop it up and bring it back for analysis, which shows: “Genetic analysis of prey fragments from SRKW foraging events shows that from May to September, the diet is comprised of about 90% Chinook Salmon, despite this species being far less abundant than Sockeye and Pink Salmon.” And their preferred diet is age 4 and 5 chinook. You can imagine them echolocating the big bodies on the other side of schools of pink and sockeye and going after them.

After the sockeye and pink move on, coho are also taken, with diet switching to the later-returning chum. By December, the SRKW are moving out of our area and down the coast. Fecal analysis shows other species as prey items, along with nursing chinook. I wonder whether the highly recognizable chinook smell contributes to prey use at this time of year, but this paper does not mention this possibility. And it seems hard to believe that animals as intelligent as killer whales would not switch to other species to avoid starvation.

Page 4 has a map of the critical summer feeding areas in southern BC, as well as gets on to talking about those Fraser 4/2s, 5/2s, etc. that we all know DFO has not done much about over the decades. Their take is that the stocks have been declining, avoiding, taking responsibility for it, and, finally, has a document that describes restoration and distribution:

We have had various methods employed to increase chinook levels, including reducing WCVI fisheries, Alaska fisheries, and for sport in our areas, slot limit and hatchery clipped fish, to avoid the mostly Fraser chinook, and lesser Puget Sound chinook.

DFO says: “Conservation measures for these populations over the last 10 years have included substantially reduced exploitation rates on Fraser Spring (age-4) and Spring/Summer (age-5) chinook designed to allow more wild Chinook to reach spawning areas. While these measures have decreased exploitation rates to well below historic sustainable levels, there has not been rapid recovery for many Chinook Salmon populations, suggesting that other factors are also contributing to on-going low productivity [Read the Warm Blob]. These populations exhibit an offshore migration pattern and appear to return to Fraser primarily through the Strait of Juan de Fuca in spring and early summer months.

Fraser Summer (age-4 ocean type) have been at high relative abundance for over a decade and have a far north distribution with return migration to the Fraser in August through Johnstone Strait and Strait of Juan de Fuca. Lower Fraser Fall (Harrison/Chilliwack) Chinook are locally distributed in southern BC waters and are present year round. Harrison Chinook have declined in recent years and have not achieved the PST escapement goal in 5 of the last 6 years. Further measures are under consideration in 2018 to improve terminal returns of Harrison Chinook.”

So, what does DFO plan for fishing in 2018? Yes, you guessed it, closed sport fishing areas in regions of Juan de Fuca, Haro Strait, and off Saturna Island, in our area. In their own words:

1. Mouth of the Fraser River (Area 29)
2. West side of Pender Island (Subarea 18-4)
3. South side of Saturna Island (Subarea 18-5)
4. Strait of Juan de Fuca (Area 20)“

You will note the lack of a conservation, enhancement plan for chinook. This seems pretty obvious when you consider that numbers are so bad, that our winter fishery is primarily for American clipped fish. Why aren’t we doing the same thing here? The reality is that we have finally come to the ‘managing chinook into extinction’ phase of DFO abrogating its responsibility for decades. Go back and look at the morning’s chinook catch photo from one small river mouth on Van Isle. The fish just aint there.

And, in those days, DFO put threshing blades on the bows of boats to kill basking sharks which were thought to eat salmon. Hmm. They eat primarily plankton. Salmon sharks eat salmon.

In all fairness, though, the PDF has links to lots of science going on. The problem is it’s mostly not about increasing chinook numbers. Here are documents to look at:

The closed area maps start on page 8, in which ‘salmon fishing or fin fish closures’ are proposed. Beside those areas are areas where the regular, Fraser-chinook-refined measures will be in place, as in some fishing is allowed. Note that you are asked to give your comments on this plan, so please do:

· Do you have suggestions for information that your organization could provide and/or assist in collecting?
o Ways to increase overall natural production of Chinook Salmon (e.g., habitat enhancement/restoration)
o Adjustments to production of enhanced chinook. DFO has a comprehensive coast-wide Chinook production program delivered through its Salmonid Enhancement Program. Current hatchery production increases the abundance of adult Chinook in many marine areas, including those areas where SRKWs forage, and as such may be beneficial to SRKWs. This production directly benefits fisheries and provides key assessment information used to manage Chinook stocks, as well as increasing abundance of chinook as a potential SRKW prey item. It may be possible to modify hatchery Chinook production to benefit SRKWs but more information is required to assess this relationship. Increasing hatchery production to benefit SRKWs would be dependent on DFO hatchery capacities (e.g. facility capacity, facility location), knowledge of which stocks would best benefit SRKWs, and careful management of wild stock status and hatchery-wild interactions.
o Manage impacts of other consumers of Chinook Salmon (e.g., seals, sea lions, seabirds, etc.)
o Increase abundance of forage fish consumed by Chinook Salmon (e.g., habitat restoration/protection, adjust harvest removals, etc.)
o or, other measures.

You may have thought that the Right Whale problem in eastern Canada has over-received attention recently – with more than 500% more animals – and while DFO is a Johnny Come Lately to the SRKW issue, it is indeed doing something.

How about some of the following suggestions:

1.     As the problem is lack of chinook, let’s put chinook enhancement on the front burner so that by 2019 there will be new chinook in the water, not four-year-old fish, but a growing number that will be four-year-old fish sooner than if no enhancement is undertaken.

2.     Clip as many hatchery chinook as possible, so that a directed fishery can be afforded for an affected stock, taking pressure off other stocks, and non-clipped stocks, too.

3.     Figure out why the Cowichan recovery has resulted in unprecedented numbers of chinook – the current number for 2017, is still 26,500 – and quickly do the same for other stocks in the SRKW area.

4.     Twelve new net pen operations with 2 million sterilized, clipped chinook fry each, every year for the next 10 years, collect the data and reassess at that point.

5.     Find a way of stimulating the planktonic base of the food chain, to ensure enough prey species for the increased numbers of released chinook.

6.     Enhance the Fraser chinook stocks in peril. There are many now, including the Harrisons that comprise our late summer chinook.

7.     Freshwater habitat restoration in SRKW region rivers. That  includes south coast Van Isle, along with those of the Fraser. 

8.     Add spawning channels to SRKW rivers for chinook. Good examples that work include the Big Qualicum chum channel, and the Taylor River coho channels. Find that flat land, in the woods where it is cooler, that there is adequate water to flood, and introduce channels. For example, the San Juan River, which has easy access in the lower reaches. Merritt area rivers also have land that can be used. In those areas, plant trees beside the new channels. Add pumps to bubble air, and thus oxygen through the channels. In deep water and in sun add solar powered cooling. Budget enough to include removing equipment before winter floods. 

9.     Hatchery enhancement in SRKW areas, maintaining genetic qualities by emphasizing epigenetic considerations.

10.  Hatchery enhancement with new, more successful techniques, the several approaches by the Nitinat hatchery, for example.

11.  Cull Salish Sea seals and sea lions. The PSF study shows, as I recall, 40% of coho smolts being eaten, along with 47% of chinook. Find a way of selling this to ENGOs and the public, presumably, to help the SRKW which everyone prefers.

12.  Eliminate the herring roe fishery for a decade.

13.  Maximize funding by recognizing the financial return from sport/commercial/processing/North East BC sport is $2.52 Billion, and that no one will keep a boat in saltwater if they can’t fish. A ‘jobs and revenue’ strategy – and one of far higher jobs and revenue than fish farms.

14.  Take fish farms out of the water and set them up on land.

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