A gillnetter crew hauls in their catch of sockeye on the lower Fraser River during the summer of 2014.

Sockeye overfishing risks salmon future: critics

Group says too few Fraser River sockeye spawned last year as conservation took back seat to catch

Conservationists say federal fishery managers allowed serious overfishing of Fraser River sockeye salmon last summer and too few fish spawned as a result.

And they say a continued policy of allowing overly aggressive commercial fishing threatens to wallop vulnerable salmon runs again this summer.

Last year saw a large run of 20 million sockeye but Watershed Watch Salmon Society executive director Aaron Hill said the number that actually spawned ended up 1.4 million below the target of 7.3 million set by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

The spawning shortfall would have been nearly three million or 41 per cent below the target had fishermen taken all the sockeye they’d been allocated.

“Big catches were obviously the big priority for our federal government, not prudent management,” Hill said.

The endangered Cultus Lake sockeye and Interior coho runs were among the stocks that fell dangerously short of their spawning targets last year, he said, raising doubts about the strength of future generations.

Salmon from weak runs return intermingled with the strong stocks and can get hammered as an unintended bycatch unless fishing is carefully restrained to ensure conservation.

Last year DFO riled First Nations and conservationists when it quadrupled the maximum catch by Canadian fishermen of the coho run – from four per cent in previous years to 16 per cent – effectively sacrificing more threatened coho so abundant sockeye could be caught.

This year’s fishing plan would maintain the same higher limits set last year.

Hill said that’s a bad idea, since this year’s sockeye run is projected to be lower at around seven million and environmental conditions appear troubling.

“They can’t even get it right in years of good abundance,” Hill said. “This year we’re looking at a massive unprecedented warming event in the north Pacific, record low snowpacks and concerns about marine productivity in general. It’s too risky.”

A large pink salmon run is also expected this year and there’s growing evidence that competititon from pinks for food at sea is hurting sockeye survival.

Hill accused fishery managers of putting industry first, in contravention of government policy that conservation of wild salmon is the top priority ahead of all user groups.

Stu Cartwright, DFO’s acting area director for the B.C. Interior, defended DFO’s plans, adding they are carefully designed to manage stocks in a way that supports conservation and sustainability while maximizing fishing opportunities for First Nations, commercial and recreational fisheries.

Bob McKamey, vice-president of the Area E Gillnetters Association, dismissed the objections from Watershed Watch.

“It wouldn’t matter what the fishing plan is, they have a kneejerk reaction to the commercial fishing industry in general,” he said.

McKamey said last year’s fishery was well managed and there was “ample evidence” to support the reduced protection for weak stocks.

In previous years, he said, too many sockeye were allowed to spawn, creating excessive competition among juveniles.

“There was no end of evidence to indicate that exploitation rates were too low and that overspawning was the problem in a lot of areas.”