Fisheries management

Leveraging science, policy, and community partnerships in pursuit of place-based sustainable salmon fisheries.

Photo by Fernando Lessa.

For more than a century, we have known that fishing pressure contributes to the decline of wild salmon. While exploitation is just one of many threats facing these fish, it is one that we have considerable control over.  

A school of salmon as seen from below in the Fraser River.
Photo by Fernando Lessa.
Salmon school in the shallows, clearly seen from above, on a sandy region of the Fraser River, mountains looming in the background.
Photo by Fernando Lessa.

Affecting more than numbers

Fisheries can affect more than just the abundance of salmon. They can make fish smaller and younger; they can decrease genetic diversity; they can change the time salmon return to spawn, influence the number of eggs a salmon lays, and whether the fry from those eggs survive to become adult salmon. Ultimately, unsustainable fisheries can prevent the recovery of wild salmon.

Raincoast engages in technical aspects of salmon management, fisheries harvest, and recovery planning. We do this independently and as part of the Marine Conservation Caucus, a collaborative group of scientists and conservationists from nine member organizations. The Marine Conservation Caucus is a stakeholder in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans consultation processes on fisheries management. As a part of this caucus, Raincoast advocates for alternatives to unsustainable fishing practices, protection of wild salmon from hatcheries and overfishing, and considering the needs of wildlife in fisheries decisions.

Implementing place-based fisheries 

The river and watershed specific aspects of salmon ecology have significant implications for managing salmon harvest. “Place-based” is a concept that recognizes the ecological connection between the wild fish and the natal watersheds where they spawn, rear, and adapt to local conditions.  Preserving this adaptive integrity by fishing at smaller, local scales is the goal of place-based management.

The opposite of place-based management is mixed stock and interception fishing. BC’s biggest interception fisheries occur on migrating Chinook salmon.  Such fisheries diminish the abundance of Chinook, their productivity, their diversity, and encourage fish to grow smaller and younger. Persistence of salmon diversity, life history complexity, and abundance, is fundamental to the recovery and resilience of salmon populations over the long term.

A school of salmon as seen from below in the Fraser River.
Photo by Fernando Lessa.
Two tiny fish float int he dark green sea.
Photo by Fernando Lessa.


Wild salmon require wild rivers. Since the 1970s, hatcheries have been used to prop up commercial and recreational fisheries. Hatcheries were the response to the problem of overfishing and habitat destruction, the root causes of the initial salmon decline. 

At its inception, the primary aim of the hatchery was to meet consumer demand while simultaneously protecting endangered populations. However, this goal has proved difficult to  achieve, and these practices are now often harming the wild fish they purport to help.

Hatcheries, when not managed appropriately, can decrease the genetic diversity of salmon populations. Hatchery fish may also compete with wild fish in the ocean. Lastly, if hatchery production is used to enhance a stock slated for harvest, this can have a disproportionately negative effect on nearby endangered populations, unless these fisheries are cautious and place-based. 

Managing salmon for wildlife

Salmon for Southern Resident killer whales 

Southern Resident killer whales have a special relationship with Chinook salmon. It’s their favourite food, comprising 50% to almost 100% of the whales’ diet, depending on the season. The seasonal migrations of Chinook returning to their spawning rivers allow them to be caught en route by killer whales in the spring, summer, fall, and even winter. 

The trends in Chinook abundance are correlated with Southern Resident health and survival.  When Chinook abundance is low, the number of calves declines and the mortality of whales increases. The most important source of Chinook salmon in Canada for Southern Resident killer whales is the Fraser River.

Despite a decade of evidence on the importance of Chinook salmon to the health and recovery of Southern Residents, little, if any, progress has been made on managing the Fraser, or other Chinook rivers, with such importance in mind. In Canada, consideration of rivers as habitat or providing ecosystem services is rarely factored into any land use decisions. 

Southern Resident killer whales swim by in the Salish Sea.
Photo by Andy Wright.
A black bear balances on a rock in the middle of a river, holding a salmon in their mouth.
Photo by Michelle Valberg.

Salmon for life on land

Coupled with considering wildlife in fisheries management, we believe it is time to establish protected salmon runs–runs that would be managed solely for their importance to wildlife and ecosystems. 

Salmon runs that spawn in protected watersheds and parks are subjected to harvest by fisheries, sometimes at levels as high as 80%. Often, these parks were created to protect species such as grizzlies, black bears, and wolves that depend on salmon. 

Allowing salmon to reach their spawning grounds within protected areas without encountering the nets and hooks of the fishing fleet is a bold proposal, but we believe it is one the public is ready for, and is long overdue for fisheries management.

Salmon for whole ecosystems

One of the most important shifts needed within fisheries management is an ecosystem-based approach. Equally, salmon management should be “place-based,” a concept that recognizes the connection wild fish have to their natal watersheds. 

Ecosystem and place-based approaches would consider the unique adaptation of every salmon run to its natal watershed, the role of salmon in food webs both in the ocean and on land, the needs of wildlife, and the role of salmon nutrients in watersheds. In many cases, simply letting more fish spawn would meet many of these goals.

Two sockeye salmon swimming in a river.
Photo by Fernando Lessa.

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