A little known or, at least, an under-appreciated fact concerning British Columbia salmonids is the number that are intercepted by Alaskan net fisheries before they ever get to Canadian waters. I think it fair to say there is a general level of awareness of the chinook salmon interception by Alaskan trollers. That is a spin off of the development of the commercial recreational fishery around the north and west side of HaidaGwaii and the allocation disputes that developed between lodge owners and our own commercial troll fleet. The Pacific Salmon Treaty between Canada and the US (1985) had much to do with heightening awareness of the status of chinook which, in turn, had much to do with the recreational fishery lobbyists enhancing their knowledge base and bargaining skills.
Chinook aside, there is another species of concern re those Alaska nets – steelhead, mostly originating from the Skeena, Nass and the two trans-boundary rivers that have never been on the British Columbia radar (Stikine and Taku). Of these four major Pacific drainages, the Skeena is the most important steelhead producer and, obviously, the best known. So, what do we know about Skeena steelhead and Alaska?
The full story of Alaskan interception of Skeena (and other BC origin) steelhead stocks is worthy of much more ink than given here. Some useful bits of the late 20th and early 21st century history are covered in my Skeena book (pg 73). All one really needs to glean from the readily available information is the conspiracy of silence that pervades commercial fishery accounting of steelhead catches is even more pronounced in Alaska than in British Columbia. When I presented the data on the Alaskan net fishery recoveries of known origin steelhead to the Alaskan delegation of Pacific Salmon Treaty participants in Bellevue, Washington in 1993 their response was to forbid the sale of commercially caught steelhead. Alaskan netters could still retain steelhead but the reporting requirement was eliminated and, along with that, any data that might be used to fuel conservation or allocation debates. The catch data to that point in time indicated the Southeast Alaskan net fisheries were harvesting just as many steelhead as was our domestic fleet operating immediately along the Skeena approaches.
Estimating the actual number of steelhead killed given the non-co-operation of commercial fishers and their government managers is every bit as difficult in Alaska as it is closer to home. Consider two points, however. First, in the 1980s when there was less sensitivity around commercial catches of steelhead, there were contractors present in both Alaska and northern BC whose job it was to sample 20% of the commercially landed fish to recover coded wire tags that had been inserted in the fish as juveniles in their hatchery of origin. The man in charge of the port sampling told me their 20% sampling rate consistently turned up more steelhead than were reported caught/sold by the net fleets. In other words there were at least five times as many steelhead being caught as were sold or reported. By forbidding the sale and eliminating catch reporting (more recently they just turn a blind eye to it) any perceived problem was made to go away. Second, the data on Babine sockeye originating from the spawning channels in that system has provided a great deal of information on the proportion of the returning Babine sockeye that are intercepted by the Alaskan nets. Over the years since the spawning channel production target has been reached, the proportion of the total catch of Babine sockeye taken by Alaska has averaged about 25-30% (i.e. the proportion enhanced Babine sockeye caught by all commercial fisheries on both sides of the Canada/US border). The Alaskan proportion has exceeded 40% as often as not over the past 35 years.
Translating the proportion of the catch into real numbers of fish is easy enough for sockeye but fraught with difficulty for steelhead given that there are no catch data to work from. That isn’t an accident. What we can say with certainty, though, is Skeena steelhead and enhanced Babine sockeye overlap in terms of run timing. So, if a given percentage of Babine sockeye caught can be translated to an actual number, it isn’t impossible to come up with an approximation of the number of steelhead lost. An interesting extension of this is that the years when Alaskan interception of Babine sockeye was low were commonly years when Skeena steelhead abundance (as estimated by the test fishery on the lower Skeena River) was relatively high.
Why do I call this ironic? Well, the heat applied to the domestic fishermen and their federal government managers in reference to Skeena steelhead interception by the northern BC net fleets has been simmering for decades. Over that same time the financial investment in the recreational fishery for Skeena steelhead has grown dramatically. It is hardly a secret that a large proportion of that money comes from the US. Check out how many of the high profile lodges catering to non-resident anglers are owned by our southern neighbours. Look further. There is a large number of booking agents, hosted travel specialists, film makers, pseudo guides, etc. from the US that suck money out of Skeena steelhead. The number of participants in these pursuits has increased at an alarming rate just in the past decade. Has anyone ever heard a peep from a single one of these readily identifiable people about the damage done by their own countrymen to the fish they capitalize on for profit? Remind me. What does a foreign booking agent who extracts 15-20% of the price of a week’s excursion to a blue ribbon steelhead lodge by a fellow citizen bent on catching as many steelhead as possible contribute to sustaining the fish at the base of it all? (One might also ask, what the Canadian economy gets out of that sort of arrangement?)
Lest anyone think I’m overstating the problems with Alaska nets, here’s a link you might want to call up. I’ll add that a You tube search of Southeast Alaskan net fisheries will turn up more evidence of Alaskan fishermen’s behaviour and the obvious complicity of the Alaskan managers than most of us have time to watch. Pay particular attention to the absence of any possibility that non-target or prohibited fish are handled in the manner the Alaskan managers would have us believe.
Then, square the video(s) with the following clip from a message sent by one of the new wave fisheries managers from Alaska. This is from an email dated December 23, 2015.
“An unknown, but likely fairly high proportion of steelhead landed are released alive. Most of the purse seine fisherman I know well say they try to get steelhead released as fast as possible when they come up. Since Skeena River steelhead are more likely to be encountered along the outer coast, most of the incidental capture would be by purse seine gear rather than drift gillnet gear, which would improve the odds of a successful release. Ideally, fish unlikely to survive would be retained and reported and the rest would be immediately released. Regardless of the percent of steelhead released alive, the practice certainly results in a much lower harvest rate on Skeena River steelhead than we see with sockeye salmon, especially considering winter steelhead would be approaching the Skeena River after net fisheries are closed.”
I’ll add just one last comment to this message from Alaska. None of those net caught steelhead from the gill net and seine fisheries out there at the highest interception areas (Noyes Island and Cape Fox) originate from Alaska. Those are all summer steelhead bound for points south. That was confirmed by all the tag recovery data in the 1980s. Winter steelhead have absolutely nothing to do with those Alaska fisheries. Their mention in the same context as Babine sockeye and Skeena steelhead speaks volumes about the naiveté of the author.
I wonder if the army of US anglers who descend on the Skeena every year might ever acknowledge the fact it isn’t just Canadian nets that compromise their fun and profit.