Canada is slashing and closing commercial coastal fishing on more than 100 salmon stocks and permanently downsizing the fleet through voluntary license buybacks in an urgent effort to protect wild salmon from extinction.
Stating Pacific salmon are in long-term decline with many runs on the verge of collapse, Bernadette Jordan, minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, announced Tuesday that bold action is needed now to stabilize and rebuild stocks before it is too late.
Salmon managers on the U.S. side of the border also are taking steps in an effort to respond to dwindling salmon stocks upon which endangered southern resident orcas rely, including increasing funding to certain hatcheries to increase production.
Some of the Canadian reductions announced in a video news conference Tuesday went into effect immediately. The cutbacks are part of a broader $647 million initiative to save wild salmon, including habitat improvements and a reconsideration of Canada’s aquaculture industry in B.C. waters.
The closures and reductions affect commercial salmon fisheries and First Nations communal commercial fisheries.
The need is clear. The last six years have been among the warmest recorded on Earth, and forest fires in B.C. in 2017 and 2018 burned a record number of acres. All of these are further pushing salmon toward extinction, including Chinook, the most prized by people and wildlife alike.
While there are exceptions, most Chinook are in an “unprecedented” decline throughout their range on the West Coast, Jordan said.
“We are pulling the emergency brake to give these salmon populations the best chance at survival,” Jordan said in a prepared statement. “The decisions to implement new long-term closures and permanently remove fishing effort from the commercial salmon fishery were not easy … But with fewer and fewer (salmon) returning every year — disappearing before our eyes — we have to act now.”
Cuts also are contemplated in U.S. coastal commercial and recreational fisheries, to conserve Chinook to benefit the southern resident orcas. Public comment is being taken on the proposed reductions until Aug. 2.
Under consideration is a change proposed by the Pacific Fishery Management Council. Amendment 21 is intended to impose reductions on ocean salmon fisheries during periods of low Chinook abundance to increase prey for the southern residents.
Possible reductions include limits on nontribal commercial fisheries north of Cape Falcon, Oregon, and shifting the quota for the Chinook salmon catch north of Cape Falcon from the spring, when the presence of orcas typically overlaps more with the with salmon fisheries, to the summer. Closures in times and areas when orcas typically are foraging also are proposed.
New research published by scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has shown the southern residents rely on Chinook taken out of a broad area, including British Columbia and southeast Alaska rivers and rivers up and down the West Coast. The whales, if anything, have been switching to a more coastal foraging pattern, monitoring of sound recordings of the whales’ travels on the outer coast has shown.
So-called mixed-stock ocean fisheries are problematic on both sides of the border because they typically encounter a mixture of salmon populations — including fish from B.C. and Washington rivers that are not supposed to be caught because they are protected in one or both countries. However inadvertent, these harvests kill fish already at risk of extinction.
To protect these fish, 138 commercial fisheries on Canada’s west coast, from B.C. to the Yukon, are included for closures and reductions. The fisheries target all five species of concern, and all gear types, including those using gillnet gear and purse seine, trolling and other methods.
Some of the closures could benefit southern resident killer whales, such as the closure of the Chinook fishery in the Thompson, the largest tributary of the Fraser River flowing through south-central B.C.
The buyback program is open to all fishers, and is intended to help fishers exit the industry permanently in what is meant to be a permanent reduction of the pressure on wild fish.
“It’s unprecedented, but the times dictate that, the crisis warrants it and this is an appropriate response,” said Misty MacDufee, wild salmon program director for the nonprofit Raincoast Conservation Foundation in Victoria.
In the U.S., orca specialist Deborah Giles has extensively researched the consequences of nutrition stress on the southern residents through her research with the University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology.
“These fish don’t abide by international borders and neither do killer whales. This is exactly what needs to be happening. Canada is taking bold steps,” Giles said.
If anything, more is needed, she added, such as curtailing the sport and commercial fishery for Chinook on the west side of Vancouver Island.
“We need to change when, where and how we fish to protect these fish that are accidentally being caught.”