Mark-Selective Fishery: a backgrounder

New fishery targets Chinook within critical habitat of Southern Resident killer whales.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada has proposed opening five new Chinook fisheries in April 2023. These fisheries would directly harm threatened and endangered Chinook populations on the East Coast of Vancouver Island and the Fraser Watershed.

These fisheries would also disrupt the feeding grounds and activities of the endangered Southern Resident killer whales due to noise and disturbance from the recreational fishing fleet and by reducing availability of their primary prey – Chinook salmon.

For both endangered whales and Chinook, the spring period is crucial for feeding and migration and must be protected from fishery impacts. No open salmon fishing should occur in key foraging areas for the SRKWs.

These new fisheries are circumventing a transparent, inclusive and evidence-based consultation process and are opposed by First Nations. It appears a small group of commercial interests, along with their supporters within the government, have managed to drive this proposal forward without due process and review.

What are Mark Selective Fisheries?

  • Mark Selective Fisheries allow the retention of hatchery salmon that have been “marked” by clipping off their adipose fin.
  • Unmarked, wild fish are released, but many of these fish will die before reaching their spawning grounds. Fisheries and Oceans Canada lacks the data necessary to adequately estimate the mortality of released fish (called Fisheries-Related Incidental Mortality or FRIM), but some studies suggest more than half of released fish could die before spawning, due to injury, disease, water and air temperatures, excess stress and predation on weak or injured fish.
  • These recreational fisheries lack adequate independent monitoring and enforcement to ensure rules are followed, increasing the risk to wild salmon.
  • Mark Selective Fisheries depend on hatcheries. The latest science shows most hatcheries do more harm than good to wild salmon, especially when hatchery fish are produced to support fisheries.
  • Production-scale hatcheries supporting these proposed fisheries create artificial salmon that can weaken the gene pool (and future survival) of wild salmon, compete directly with wild salmon for food and drive harmful fisheries.  

Mark Selective Fisheries are not an answer to Chinook recovery

  • Most of the information and data on catch, release, FRIM and compliance that DFO  uses to defend these fisheries has not been independently verified. Washington State, in collaboration with the Washington Tribes, requires the use of verifiable data collected through independent test fisheries to manage their MSF on Chinook.
  • These fisheries could be used to justify unsustainable hatchery practices at the expense of wild fish. Hatchery practices focused on production can cause imbalances in the gene pool of wild fish and make them less well-adapted to their surroundings. Hatchery production can also increase the competition for food, often in food limited environments, resulting in no overall gain in salmon production. 
  • The South Coast recreational Chinook fishery has seen increased effort and catch in recent years. This is especially true for areas where the MSF are currently proposed. Evidence from catches and effort does not support arguments that the sport fish industry has been constrained by conservation. 

The importance of Fraser River Chinook

  • Fraser River Chinook salmon are a critical food source for Southern Resident killer whales from spring to fall. Spring Chinook from the Fraser have 30% more fat than fall Chinook.  
  • Across the seasons, Chinook comprise between 50% and almost 100% of the diet of Southern Resident killer whales.
  • Southern Residents have a strong preference for larger and older Chinook salmon that are returning to the Fraser River to spawn at 4 and 5 years old. In some cases, larger and older fish are more at risk of death after catch and release. 
  • To reach their spawning grounds, endangered Spring Chinook salmon must often navigate high flows at Hells Gate and Big Bar, and then endure higher river temperatures before they spawn later in the season. These migration stressors are in addition to stress from being caught and handled. The stressors act cumulatively to reduce survival.

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Chelsea Greer hanging a wildlife camera.