Fisheries Management and Canada’s Wild Salmon Policy


Fisheries management is a fascinating, albeit disheartening, vocation that is caught in the same conundrum that plagues most resource management – it’s really the humans that need managing, not the resource.  Where fisheries management gets really interesting however, is the divergent perspectives of biologists drawn to study it. Though attracted to fish and their biology, fisheries scientists have historically been employed to protect the fishery; and with that, the economic, employment and social benefits it might provide. This approach uses what ecologists term ‘single species management’.  It considers the dynamics of a fish population within the context of maximising the number of fish that can be harvested.

Changes in the trophic composition of harvests. Ocean & Coastal Mgmt, 2000

Increasingly however, biologists attracted to fish are studying their dynamics within the context of marine ecosystems.  Ecologists study the food web and the relationships between species and processes.  Their primary consideration is to protect the diversity of organisms at all trophic levels that interact with specific species.

These conflicting objectives have fueled the divergent perspectives on the impacts that fisheries have had on global fish stocks.  Ecologists like UBC’s Daniel Pauley, who feels the oceans are the victim of a giant Ponzi scheme waged by the world’s fisheries, go head to head with fisheries biologists defending their stock recruitment models and exploitation rates while fingering other drivers for fishery collapses.

In one fascinating outcome of this debate, a weighty paper was published in the journal Science in July 2009 following a public dispute about the global trend toward fisheries collapse.  As a result, eminent US fisheries biologist Ray Hilborn and Canadian ecologist Boris Worm teamed up to lead a group of 19 international scientists in a united effort to reconcile the contradictory messages coming from the scientific community on the state of global fisheries.  The paper, Rebuilding global fisheries (PDF) and its supplement (PDF) can be found here.  The next step however, is to reverse the identified trends to a point where ecologists believe that our fisheries and marine ecosystems are not impaired by fisheries management and extraction.

The Status of Salmon

There is no question that fisheries management presents complex biological, economic, and political challenges.  The status of salmon throughout much of BC and the US Pacific Northwest substantiates this difficulty.

In the lower continental US, salmon have disappeared from 40% of their historic spawning range and commercial fisheries proceed only as exceptions.  In British Columbia, commercial catches of salmon between 1995-2005 were the lowest on record and the number of stocks contributing to this catch has declined, shifting over the decades from many diverse runs to fewer large runs.

In 2008, Raincoast published a paper, Ghost Runs (PDF), on the status of salmon on BC’s central and north coast.  Our findings showed that salmon runs have repeatedly failed to meet their  escapement targets – meaning that not enough fish are returning to spawn.  This resulted in a diminished status given to all species in nearly every decade since 1950.  Only 4% of monitored streams consistently met their escapement targets (by decade) since 1950.

There has also been a continual erosion of stream counts and monitoring efforts since the 1980s.  By 2005, only 137 indicator streams (out of 2600 known salmon runs) were being monitored.

Further, monitoring efforts have been eroding in a biased manner that contributes to a shifting baseline syndrome, since runs not meeting their targets in one decade are likely to be dropped from monitoring in the next.  Since 2008, preliminary assessments of the 456 Conservation Units in BC suggest 1/3 are now threatened or endangered and another 1/3 are data deficient (i.e., their status is unknown).  In 2017, Raincoast will be releasing status reports that have now been completed on all five species of commerically managed salmon in BC’s 456 Conservation Units.

Maximum Sustained Yield

Canada’s Wild Salmon Policy (WSP) states that the conservation of wild salmon and their habitat is the top priority in decision making. While a good goal, the reality is that fisheries management in Canada is embedded in a single species harvest approach that uses single generation stock recruitment relationships to maximise fisheries harvest while minimising the number of fish allowed to spawn.  This approach, encapsulated in the philosophy of Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY), has been criticized for almost three decades for its failure to safeguard fisheries and maintain ecosystem structure and function.  Generally, these models provide a simple understanding of (often) complex ecological systems, they are overly optimistic of productivity, they don’t capture uncertainty, they downplay the risk of over-fishing, and they assume harvested “surplus’ fish have no role other than their purpose for human consumption. Still, MSY remains the touchstone of salmon management in BC.

Where to next….

One of the most important shifts needed within fisheries management is ecosystem-based escapement (i.e. spawning) goals.  Such goals would consider the trophic position of salmon in the food web, the needs of wildlife, the role of salmon nutrients in watershed processes, and environmental/climate uncertainty.  In many cases, simply letting more fish spawn would meet many of these goals. Identifying thresholds and specific needs of terrestrial carnivores like bears, is the focus of Raincoast’s Salmon-Carnivore Project.

Establishing protected salmon runs in protected watersheds

Coupled with lowered harvest rates to consider wildlife needs, we also believe it is time to establish truly protected salmon runs – runs that would be managed solely for their importance to wildlife and ecosystems.  The paper Salmon for Parks (PDF) (2010 Conservation Letters) shows salmon runs that spawn in protected watersheds and parks are subjected to exploitation by commercial fisheries at levels as high as 80%. Often, these parks were created to protect species such as grizzlies, black/spirit bears and wolves that depend on salmon.  Allowing salmon to reach their spawning grounds within protected areas without encountering the nets of the Pacific salmon fleet is a bold and ambitious proposal (because runs are only protected from harvest when they are overfished or endangered), but we believe it is one the public is ready for, and is long overdue for fisheries management.

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