Fisheries Minister stands strong for Fraser River sockeye salmon while Americans abandon caution and go fishing

Three sockeye salmon in a river.
The Fraser watershed’s famed Adams River sockeye run failed to achieve even the modest forecasts DFO made for this year’s return. Photo by Chris Cheadle.

VANCOUVER/UNCEDED xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (MUSQUEAM), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (SQUAMISH) AND səlilwətaɬ (TSLEIL-WAUTUTH) TERRITORIES — August 23, 2022

Sustainable fishing advocates at Watershed Watch Salmon Society and Raincoast Conservation Foundation are commending Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray for her decision to not open Canadian commercial fisheries for Fraser River sockeye salmon, despite US fishery managers allowing their fleet to string out nets for those same fish along the BC border over the weekend. 

Late last week, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) rejected the Pacific Salmon Commission’s (PSC) estimate of the size of the Fraser sockeye run, opting for a more precautionary estimate that precluded commercial fishing under current harvest rules. In a move without recent precedent, American fishery managers rejected the Canadian position, adopted the PSC run-size estimate, and allowed their fleet to harvest Fraser sockeye. Subsequent monitoring reduced the run-size estimate by 1.73 million fish, validating the minister’s precautionary stance. The total run-size estimate has now been reduced by 4.2 million fish, or over 40%, relative to the pre-season forecast of 9.78 million.

“The latest test fishing data and run size estimates from the Pacific Salmon Commission show that Minister Murray and DFO did the right thing, and that the Americans should have stood down, too,” said Aaron Hill, executive director at Watershed Watch Salmon Society. “We avoided the kind of overfishing DFO allowed in 2018 that hammered the parents of this year’s sockeye.”

Fraser sockeye return to spawn in particularly strong numbers once every four years, in what is known as the “dominant year class”. With this being a dominant year, and in light of strong sockeye returns to other rivers along the north Pacific coast, fishers had been expecting a bonanza for Fraser sockeye this summer. However, ocean surveys this past winter found a surprising lack of Fraser sockeye relative to other populations, raising questions about the cause.

“The numbers are disturbing,” said Greg Taylor, a fishing industry veteran and senior advisor to Watershed Watch. “This is the dominant return for Fraser sockeye that includes the once famous Adams River run. For it to fail to achieve the modest forecasts DFO set out pre-season, when most other sockeye returns in the Pacific—from Russia to Alaska and down to the Columbia—did as well, or better, than expectations, speaks to something deeply wrong with the Fraser River, the Salish Sea, or both.”

One potential explanation is the presence of salmon farms along the Fraser sockeye migration route when they went to sea as juveniles in 2020. Salmon farms are known to spread harmful parasites, viruses and bacteria to wild salmon. 

Many Fraser sockeye populations are severely depleted. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), a federally mandated science body, has determined that 10 of the 24 populations of Fraser sockeye they assessed are either “endangered” or “threatened”. Last year Minister Murray’s predecessor announced sweeping closures of commercial fisheries to help rebuild Pacific salmon runs. 

Washington State’s fishery for Fraser River sockeye over the weekend comes amid growing criticism of American fishery managers over their increasing impacts on BC-bound salmon runs while fisheries on this side of the border are closed to protect at-risk stocks.

“This is yet another example of how the Pacific Salmon Treaty is failing to protect BC salmon runs that swim through American waters,” said Misty MacDuffee, Wild Salmon Program Director at Raincoast Conservation Foundation.  “With river temperatures above 20°C, river discharge 20% above normal, and huge reductions from the predicted run size, a stale trade agreement is thwarting a fishery minister’s brave stand in defence of Fraser sockeye.”