Fisheries Management and Canada’s Wild Salmon Policy

Photo by Fernando Lessa.

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.

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 stock-recruitment models and exploitation rates while pointing to 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, 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 reversing the trends to a point where ecologists believe that fisheries and marine ecosystems are not impaired by harvest and biomass extraction.

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

The Status of Salmon

There is no question that fisheries management presents complex biological, economic, and political challenges.  The status of salmon throughout most 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 many populations of wild salmon are protected under US Endangered Species legislation. Fisheries in the US are sustained largely by the producing hatchery fish. In British Columbia, the recent decade represents the lowest catches on record with all-time lows observed in Chinook and sockeye in places like the Fraser River and Skeena watersheds.  As in the US, few of the fisheries in BC are now conducted on wild salmon.  Most rely on the annual artificial propagation of fish from hatcheries.

Ghost Runs: BC’s Great Bear Rainforest

In 2008 and 2017, Raincoast published papers on the status of salmon on BC’s central and north coast. Our original findings (Ghost Runs 2008 (GR PDF)) showed that salmon runs repeatedly failed to meet their spawning targets – meaning that not enough fish returned to spawn. Only 4% of monitored streams consistently met their escapement targets (by decade) since 1950. This paper also documented the erosion in monitoring of salmon rivers and runs, creating a lack of ability to assess salmon health. By 2005, only 137 indicator streams (out of 2600 known salmon runs) were being monitored.

In the 10 year update to this assessment (Conservation progress under Canada’s Wild Salmon Policy (WSP PDF)) , we evaluated salmon status relative to the 2006 implementation of Canada’s WildSalmon Policy. Our results showed that monitoring effort continued to erode, the abundance of spawning salmon continued to decline for several species, the status of many salmon Conservation Units were in zones of concern, and 42% of the Conservation Units that we assessed as Red (threatened) would have improved in status had the Canadian fishery been reduced.

Fig 2. Decadal trends in monitoring of salmon runs in BCs  Great Bear Rainforest 1950- 2005. 
Fig 2. Decadal trends in monitoring of salmon runs in BCs  Great Bear Rainforest 1950- 2005. 
Price et al. 2008 CJFAS.
Price et al. 2008 CJFAS.


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 laudable 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. Fishing into spawner escapement goals is routine practice.  Even the benchmarks used to guide fisheries management permit chronically low levels of salmon abundance (well below those needed to meet MSY) before fisheries are closed.

Even if Canada did adhere to meet its MSY goals, Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY), has been criticized 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, conventional MSY remains the touchstone of salmon management in BC.

Considering wildlife

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 needs of terrestrial carnivores, like bears, is the focus of Raincoast’s Salmon-Carnivore Project. The needs of salmon for marine predators is the focus of our Southern Resident killer whale recovery work.

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 greatly overfished or endangered), but we believe it is one the public is ready for, and is long overdue for fisheries management.