A better, older way to fish for salmon

Our new animation highlights solutions to the problems in conventional fisheries.

“How are the salmon doing?” It’s a question that salmon biologists get all the time, from friends at a café or from family around the dinner table. Our response is often to pause, grimace, and reply: “generally, not so good.” 

Along with climate change and habitat loss, overfishing is widely known as a key driver of this decline. Overfishing is taking more fish than a population can support. With a problem seemingly this straightforward, couldn’t the solution be to just catch fewer fish? The answer is not so black and white.

The third video in our new animation series, Ripple Effect, explores how we might tackle the problem of overfishing by looking at ways that fisheries have been conducted for generations. 

When biologists mumble “not so good” to the question of how salmon are doing, a lot of nuance is left out. A more accurate response would be that some are doing worse than others. After all, there are five species of Pacific salmon, (coho, sockeye, Chinook, chum, pink) in BC, and within that, hundreds of unique populations that return to different streams across the province. 

Some populations, like odd-year Fraser River pink salmon, have stable or increasing abundance. Other populations, like sockeye returning to the Stuart River or Chinook salmon that return to the Upper Fraser have declined so dramatically that they have been assessed as endangered.

This variation in population status means two things: 

  1. It can still be possible to catch salmon from some healthy populations without overfishing.
  2. Some methods that we currently use to catch salmon can harm at-risk populations, preventing their recovery.

When young salmon leave their natal streams they converge with other salmon in the ocean. This means that salmon from at-risk populations often swim alongside salmon from healthy populations. When fishing boats pull their nets, lines, and hooks, they often can’t differentiate which salmon they are catching before they are all brought up onto the boat. Imagine a cloth bag filled with marbles: 1,000 are green and 300 are red. Close your eyes and pull out a handful. Could you avoid a red one? The likelihood of selecting at-risk fish  is one of the reasons  a mixed-stock fishery is unsustainable. But even without threatened fish present, the nature of salmon populations makes some inherently more vulnerable to overharvest than others.

There are solutions

Fortunately, there’s a better way to fish for salmon, one that makes it easier for fishers to separate healthy and at-risk populations. It’s a method that’s also been used for millennia by Indigenous peoples along the west coast of North America;it’s called terminal fishing.

Pacific salmon return to spawn in the rivers where they were born. If people were to fish at the mouth or within these rivers, instead of out in the ocean, they can target  the populations that are present at specific times. Fishers can then harvest returning salmon from healthy populations while avoiding those that are endangered. They can also be sure that they’ve let enough fish swim past them to their spawning grounds before they start harvesting, allowing for nimble, real-time management of fisheries based on the counting of fish returning to spawn.   

This practice is known as terminal fishing, as it intercepts salmon at the end (terminus) of their life cycle. Terminal fishing also only targets fish that are mature and heading to spawn, while ocean-based fishing methods can catch fish before they are fully mature. Catching immature fish can reduce the body size of salmon over time, as has happened in Chinook over the last hundred years.      

There are examples of terminal fisheries on the west coast

Terminal fishing by Indigenous communities was outlawed by colonial governments in the early 20th century. But many of these Nations are re-asserting their right to terminal fishing practices as a way to protect at-risk salmon populations while feeding their communities. Increasingly, terminal fisheries are demonstrating their ecological, social, and economic sustainability for everyone.

Authentic Indigenous Seafood, a collective that works with Indigenous-owned fisheries, is bringing sustainably caught wild salmon to market from terminal fisheries across BC. Lummi Island Wild sells sockeye and pink salmon caught by reef-netting, another traditional fishing practice now being used commercially. The Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) Nation is revitalizing their terminal fisheries and feeding their community by blending Indigenous and western science

These operations are showing us that traditional fishing systems are powerful tools for addressing the salmon crisis today.

Learn more about terminal fisheries

You can help

Raincoast’s in-house scientists, collaborating graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors make us unique among conservation groups. We work with First Nations, academic institutions, government, and other NGOs to build support and inform decisions that protect aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and the wildlife that depend on them. We conduct ethically applied, process-oriented, and hypothesis-driven research that has immediate and relevant utility for conservation deliberations and the collective body of scientific knowledge.

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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.