Here we are staring at the beginning of yet another year of process intended to rationalize the multitude of fisheries now impacting salmon in British Columbia. The call is out from our Department of Fisheries and Oceans (I’ll leave out the part about the Coast Guard and just call it DFO) to line up for participation in its annual Integrated Fisheries Management Plan (IFMP) development. In fact the process began in early December, 2017 with the backward glance at what happened following implementation of last years’ IFMPs. From there the agenda calls for various meetings of those with an interest in the 2018 plan at roughly two week intervals between early January and the end of April. Following that the draft plan(s) (one for the north coast and another for the south) disappear into the DFO woodwork for several more weeks before re-surfacing as public documents sometime in June. These are monumental documents replete with more acronyms, policy references and web site links than any normal person could possibly wrap their mind around. The northern plan for 2017 was 412 pages, its southern counterpart 536 pages.
How closely the in-season management decisions reflect the exhaustive IFMP process and product that preceded them really never matters. All that counts is DFO’s ability to demonstrate it invited everyone to its consultation forum, whether they showed up or not.
With that simplistic overview of what lies ahead, here’s some items of interest with respect to steelhead and how they might fare in the commercial and First Nations fisheries that they will encounter between tidewater and their freshwater destination. We’re talking summer steelhead here, at least for the most part. The principle stocks of concern are those returning to the interior Fraser tributaries, the Dean River and the upriver tributaries of the Skeena. No one seems to recognize there are still three more major Pacific drainages supporting interior summer steelhead north of the Skeena (i.e. Nass, Stikine and Taku) so I won’t bother with them here. In fact there is never any acknowledgement of either the Stikine or Taku and the Nass is essentially under Nisga’a control. Now, on with those steelhead related items.
- Commercial and First Nations (FN) fisheries are being progressively cut back to address conservation concerns for the preferred target species, sockeye and chinook. That is a good news, bad news scenario for steelhead. Less commercial fishing by seiners and gill netters during the overlap in run timing with steelhead means more of them get beyond traditional net gauntlets than would have in a year of average or better sockeye and chinook returns. The bad news is DFO offers up other salmon species as compensation for foregone opportunity on those primary targets. FNs are first in line in that respect. In the Skeena, coho and steelhead are the replacements. In the Fraser its pinks and, more importantly, chums. Most who are even vaguely familiar with the Fraser chum fishery understand that targeting them is a worst case scenario for Interior Fraser Steelhead (IFS) whose run timing overlaps those enhanced chum stocks completely. Fisheries targeting a million or two chums mixed up with and a couple of hundred steelhead does not make for a (steelhead) management success story.
- The public perception that it is the conventional commercial fishing gill netters and seiners that impact steelhead the most is just plain wrong. If one looks at those IFMP documents over the past several years it ought to be obvious the gill netters and seiners have been cut back steadily in terms of numbers of participating vessels as well as the times and places they can fish. The fishery of yesteryear is never going to return. Instead it is being replaced by FN fisheries that now dominate the IFS conservation scene. Shades of the same outcome are evident in the Skeena as well but that is out of sight, out of mind to the large majority of the BC population that lives in the southwest corner of the province.
- Those IFMP documents are replete with reference to a growing number of different types of FN fisheries. There are treaty fisheries, inland demonstration fisheries, harvest agreement fisheries, economic opportunity fisheries, ESSR (Escapement Surplus to Spawning Requirements) fisheries and, of course, FSC (Food, Social and Ceremonial) fisheries that are enshrined in Canada’s constitution. In the lower Fraser there are frequently two or three of those fisheries coincidentally harvesting chum (for roe) all through the IFS run timing window. I noted previously (“The Elephant in the Room”) that FN fisheries of one description or another occurred on 67 of the 80 days when IFS steelhead once navigated the lower Fraser. Contrast that with two days of commercial gill netting over the same period and the nature of the steelhead problem starts to emerge.
- If one believes the IFMP outputs, there are conditions applied with respect to non-target species (i.e. steelhead) and there are observers and catch reporting monitors attached to virtually every FN fishery that occurs. To that I say show me the data. The boardroom talk might be believable among those who have never been on the fishing grounds or those whose purpose is to put lipstick on the pig but I’m not one of them. In fact, just try and get any of the steelhead catch data out of DFO.
Am I making this up? Consider some questions I put to the DFO official responsible for all the fishery announcements for the Skeena area fisheries during the 2017 season. (One can reasonably assume the same questions and answers are applicable to the Fraser.) These questions came immediately following his August 8, 2017 bulletin. I quote:
“Note: Now that the Skeena sockeye Total Return to Canada estimate has eclipsed 625,000 (the trigger point Skeena Nations agreed to allow full FSC harvesting of sockeye in the Skeena River and in Area 4), Skeena First Nations are now fishing for sockeye in the Skeena River and in the marine approaches to the Skeena (Area 4).”
Remember, there had been an inordinate amount of time and effort dedicated to producing that 412 page IFMP document which was supposed to at least put goalposts around all the fisheries influencing “managed” species. And, lest we forget, the areas and times being thrown open here are those with the sorry history of seeing by far the greatest steelhead interception. Finally, steelhead abundance, as measured at DFO’s own test fishery on the lower Skeena, was seriously depressed in 2017. Thus my questions:
Q. What sub-areas are open/closed and what number and distribution of vessels do you anticipate? Are we talking about both seiners and gill netters?
A. All of Area 4 is open to FSC harvesting. Most fishing will be by gillnet, though there are a couple seines which are fishing, as well.
Q. What days will be open?
A. 7 days a week
Q. What conditions exist with respect to net size and deployment times (i.e. are the conditions the same as would be expected for non-FN commercial fishermen)?
A.There are no gear restrictions for a FSC fishery as they are allowed to harvest any fish that is not listed under SARA, though amounts, by species, are specified in each AFS agreement.
Q. What conditions of license exist with respect to catch reporting?
A. They have a reporting requirement under their AFS licence agreement.
Q. What monitoring of the fishery will be occurring and by whom?
A. Monitoring will be as per any other season and is specific to each individual First Nation.
Well, all those responses raised additional questions that needed to be asked so that I could better judge the degree to which these steadily growing FN fisheries might be impacting steelhead. I was also curious about the attention accorded steelhead by DFO in these fisheries. Judge for yourselves.
Q. Does DFO keep track of the number of gill net and seine vessels fishing on each day as this fishery progresses?
A. Each Organization is responsible for managing their food fisheries. This includes designating vessels to fish for food. DFO does not require this information unless the vessels are fishing during a commercial fishery.
Q. I note your reference to the AFS license agreement. Is that license/agreement available to an outsider like me? Have their been similar license agreements in previous years?
A. The AFS program was developed in 1992 as a result of the Sparrow decision and provides funding agreements for First Nation Organizations to participate in the management of the fishery. Agreements and licences are negotiated/issued annually and licences are provided to all First Nation Organizations as a management tool in the food fishery whether or not there is an AFS agreement negotiated. There is more information on the AFS program at http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/fm-gp/aboriginal-autochtones/afs-srapa-eng.htm AFS agreements and food fish licences are not available online as there is protected information included in them.
Q. If the AFS license/agreement is not available, what can you tell me about the catch reporting requirements for this year or any previous years where agreements similar to 2017 were in place? How much faith can you put in the accuracy of any steelhead catch information that might be available?
A. Catch reporting requirements are in every licence issued by the Department. The frequency of reporting depends on the fishery. In years such as this, weekly in-season catch reporting for salmon is provided to DFO. This information is protected and cannot be distributed. A summary of food fish harvest is provided in the post season review. Steelhead is a Provincially managed species and is not included in the FSC licences issued by DFO. Some steelhead information is provided with the catch reporting but it is not a DFO requirement. I can say in a general sense it is likely that very few steelhead are harvested in the Skeena First Nation food fishery.
Q. I’m not familiar with what monitoring may have occurred in previous years so I would appreciate a bit more detail on that and for this year as well. When you say “specific to each individual First Nation” how many FNs are we talking about? Which ones? What are the specifics of their monitoring procedures?
A. Monitoring is conducted every year for each First Nation. All First Nations are permitted to fish for food, so you can assume that every First Nation organization in proximity to a fishing area will have a licence and monitoring program. There are many variables to the different programs depending on area, species, time of year, etc. The Department requests, at a bare minimum, the total harvest for each species provided annually. Species such as salmon would have more frequent reporting requirements and include effort, area, dates, etc. If you would like more information on specific catch monitoring programs, I would suggest contacting the specific First Nations fishery programs.
Q. I see the estimate of the proportion of the sockeye run past Tyee stood at 86% as of August 7. That being the case the ratio of sockeye to other species whose run timing is slightly later (e.g. steelhead) would be expected to be significantly lower. That raises the issue of conservation in a year such as this when steelhead abundance is obviously low. Has anyone raised any concern about that?
A. Nope. As stated earlier, steelhead management is a provincial mandate. Also stated earlier, steelhead harvesting by First Nations during FSC fisheries is not covered within AFS agreements and there is no reporting requirement under those agreements. If there are conservation concerns identified, I would suggest the Province raise the issue with the various Skeena First Nations and the recreational sector and provide management alternatives to address the issue.
So, there you go people. Does any of this give you comfort steelhead have a snowball in purgatory chance of being considered in FN fisheries or any others DFO gets its hands on? Does this do anything to build confidence that investing in IFMPs makes sense? Well meaning people should buy the DFO line and invest heart and soul in saving steelhead at one end of their migration funnel only to have the results of their efforts disappear at the other end? And, where is the province in any of this? MIA is too kind a term to apply to those we pay to “manage” steelhead on our behalf. Lastly, what do we suppose the chances are that any FN member who chooses to harvest as many steelhead as he/she likes by any regularly employed fishing method would ever be held accountable, no matter how grave the conservation concern? The recent pictures of harvested Thompson steelhead that showed up on social media will be one to watch in that regard.