Sockeye Stock Studies and Policies

December 1, 2014

Photo courtesy of Joshua Duncan
This year set out to be a good year for commercial Fraser River sockeye fishing in Canada. Forecasts indicated 21 million to as many as 70 million sockeye returning to the river.  The final count has not come in yet and though it may seem like the numbers are good, our conversation with Dennis Brown tells us that with a different management approach it had the potential to be much better. 
The past 20 years of the BC salmon fishery has encountered a number of difficulties.  The difficulties became so pronounced that in 2010 a judicial inquiry was launched. We spoke with Dennis Brown – author of Salmon Wars and a close observer and participant of the sockeye fishery to get more insight into the current state of the fishery, the culmination of events that led to the inquiry and his thoughts on what may help the future of the fishery.

Salmon Basics

Dennis began by explaining the diversity of salmon species, enumerating the five types: Chinook, Coho, Sockeye, Pink and Chum. “They have a unique biological nature. They all have different behaviour and they have widely different commercial value” he explains.  Pink salmon are the smallest and most abundant. The prize of the BC coast however is the Fraser River sockeye salmon. It is the central focus of the fishery and a source of livelihood for many people and in a conversation with Dennis you can tell is his passion as well.  
We’re informed that sockeye salmon are uniquely different from other salmon.  Salmon generally share one behaviour: they set out to sea the year after they are spawned.  However, sockeye salmon live out an extra year in fresh water before making their way out to sea. Salmon are conditioned to return to their original spawning grounds.  They have evolved a sense of preference for the conditions in which they were spawned. Most sockeye spawn in four year cycles, although some spawn on their fifth year. For example most fish mature enough to reproduce in 2014 were spawned four years prior - in 2010. The term brood year is used when indicating the year the fish were spawned. When speaking about predictions they will count how many fish are expected to return based on their brood year. 
Each genetic type of fish born in one location is called a stock. In total there are approximately 9,600 different stocks of salmon in British Columbia, “…which is a pretty incredible thing to contemplate, that’s far more diverse than in Alaska…” said Dennis. “There’s more biodiversity in salmon in British Columbia than probably anywhere else on earth”.  He estimates that of those 9,600 stocks, a few hundred are sockeyes however 95 are Fraser River sockeye stocks.  Of those 95, five to six of these are considered major stocks - of this year’s predicted 21 million, close to 20 million originated from just two of those stocks.

Escapement, Over-escapement and Forecasts

Escapement is a term used in fisheries management. It is the set number of salmon, after harvesting, that make it to the spawning ground.  Each year the Department of Fisheries and Oceans through model projections estimates how many fish will come back from the ocean to the rivers to spawn.  The intention of these calculations is to estimate how many fish are to be caught leaving enough to have a healthy stock. 
Over-escapement is a term used by fish harvesters.  The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is somewhat uncomfortable using this term.  He says “fishermen use it because they’re looking at what they think are overly large numbers of fish ushered to the spawning grounds”. He continues “There’s a great debate about this every year and it’s been going on for years”. Although Dennis says “in fact there never really was any disagreement over the fact you didn’t want to have too many fish in the spawning grounds for more than one hundred years”.  According to Dennis the issue of over-escapement has become a more contentious issue recently. 
Salmon forecasts can be quite complicated.  To simplify it Dennis explained it this way: “Salmon forecasts are based on classic stock recruitment models used around the world – in particular the Ricker stock recruitment curve”.  He adds that they enter data such as the number of fish spawned four years prior (the brood year), hypothetical fry survival rates in the fresh water, how many fry made the migration to sea and other variables about marine survival rates. “Most salmon run forecasts come with projections of varying degree of certainty.” They will use the model to forecast a range, for example 10 million to 20 million salmon. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans then generally uses a factor of 75% and 50% probability when making the projections.  This would mean that 75 times out of 100 they would be correct with the 10 million salmon estimate and 50 times out of 100 they will be correct with the 20 million salmon estimate.  The Department of Fisheries and Oceans tends to prefer the 75% probability, which according to Dennis is the one most used as it is “risk averse”.  With this much spread in the numbers many of the decisions with regard to the fishery depend on both the numbers provided by the Ricker stock recruitment curve but most importantly on test fisheries conducted during the fishing season and catch rates.  

Salmon History

The salmon fishery has existed in British Columbia for over a century. First fished by the Aboriginal people, Europeans began fishing salmon in the late 19th century. Although salmon fishing occurs on many British Columbia rivers, Hells Gate in the Fraser River is one of the areas most synonymous with the history of salmon fishing. It has gained it’s notoriety due to events in 1913.  Hells Gate acquired its name because of the large rocky walls that jut high up leaving only a narrow 115 foot passage.  This passage was the chosen path for many sockeye salmon.  The area was quite popular with people as well due to the gold rush, for its beauty and natural resources.  It attracted many people to the area. The Canadian Pacific Railway began building the railroad in this area. In 1913 Canadian Northern Railway also decided to build a track on the very edge of Hells Gate. During the construction, a large rockslide occurred, leaving heavy rocks and debris in the passage.  This severely obstructed the passage of sockeye salmon.  What was once one of the major sockeye passages was now hardly accessible.  Many fish were blocked below Hells Gate. According to Dennis “the stocks from the Fraser were essentially almost wiped out”.  His book Salmon Wars delves more deeply into the incident.  Rock and debris were moved out of the area and other efforts were made to ease the access for salmon.  Dennis recounts the rebuilding of the stocks: “They built up runs so that by the 1990s…we were literally producing more Fraser River sockeye in a (cumulative) four year cycle than they were in the 1890s”.  
Sadly the growth of the stocks came to what seems like an abrupt end. Something in the mid-nineties occurred and the impact was seen in 2009 when the lowest run was counted at less than 1 million – even though in 2005 the brood year escapement was excellent. Many groups and individuals have hypothesised about the cause of decline, ranging from overfishing, environmental factors, fish farms, climate change, management policies and many other reasons. With such a disastrous year and an obvious need for examination of the situation a judicial inquiry called the Cohen Commission was launched. It was meant to examine what led to such small returns and what steps were to be taken to re-establish healthy runs.  The Cohen Commission has now been completed and according to Dennis it was a “disappointment because it was set up in such a way that it got bogged down in a huge number of side issues and really came to no actual conclusions on the cause. So the problem still just drifts”. 
The numbers of fish were fairly good this year however considering the brood year this year would be considered relatively low productivity for return.  Dennis recalls in the 80s and 90s, “the stock return ratios were 2 or 3 adults for every spawner and in some cases 7 to 12 and now we’re in an era where on our best years we’re getting less than one for every spawner, sometimes even less than half an adult for each spawner”. 

Reasons for the Decline

The many interested parties in the fishery all have a unique way of looking at the decline. We focused on Dennis’ views for the decline. Because he has been a close observer of the sockeye fishery for such a long time he has had the opportunity to study the many different facets and explanations that some have claimed is the root cause of the decline.  In his opinion the foremost reason for the decline are the management policies currently in place.  He also believes this is also a thought supported by many small boat owners. The policies having the biggest impact on the fishery arose from the Mifflin plan and the Anderson Plan which later culminated into the Wild Salmon Policy.
Dr. Walters of University of British Columbia is a world leading scientist in fisheries population dynamics and a key advisor for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and to the industry for decades. Dr. Walters was commissioned in 2006 to write a paper for the Pacific Fisheries Resource Conservation Council where he wrote that no difficulties would occur due to over escapement. He concluded in 2006 that the Ricker Stock Recruitment Curve, whereby fish had varying rates of productivity depending on the abundance of food, competition for food, etc., would have a buildup of productivity like a bell where it would reach its maximum sustainable yield then the curve would break gradually. It would therefore be easy to make subsequent adjustments. Now, after examining the Fraser River sockeye runs for the past 15 to 25 years, Dr. Carl Walters now concludes that over escapement fails to produce higher populations of fish.  Therefore allowing extra fish to the spawning ground will not build up the stock; rather, it becomes a waste of possible income to fish harvesters. Dr. Walters estimates a loss of close to half a billion dollars over the past 20 years with this management policy. Further, he notes that there is now very clear evidence of “delayed density dependence”, where high abundances in one spawning year can cause reduced productivity by spawners in the next few years; such delayed effects are probably what causes the violent cyclic dominance pattern observed in larger stocks, and imply that spawning stock targets should be lower than if future abundance produced by each spawning year were dependent only on that year’s spawners.
Another plan to radically change the face of the fishery came during Fred Mifflin’s time as Fisheries Minister. He sought to reduce the fleet primarily for economic reasons. This saw a reduction of almost two thirds of the commercial salmon fishing fleet, reducing ownership by individual fish harvesters and increasing corporate control. This program was aligned with the views of a prominent University of British Columbia fisheries economist, Dr. Peter Pearce.  Dennis explained Dr. Pearce’s belief “if you put the common property in private hands, the owners will find efficient ways to reduce costs and extract maximum wealth from the resource”.   Pearce’s economic model favoured those with access to capital and corporations at the expense of small scale owner operators.  Now those who fished the waters and had knowledge about the fishery had lost influence.  Fisheries management and corporate interests were deciding the future of the west coast fishery.  This also made it easy to lay blame on fish harvesters. “There’s little political risk or down side for Ottawa in abusing the commercial fishery” Dennis says. Although it is more important than ever, with almost no fish harvesters left in the fishery, it makes it difficult for fish harvesters to have a strong voice in decisions being made.  
The next Minister of Fisheries to advance a plan was David Anderson.  His plan was later to become the Pacific Fisheries Restructuring Plan. It was an attempt at managing weak stocks of coho salmon. Its aim ostensibly was conservation. While Dennis believes that conservation is paramount, he says the public has been somewhat mislead. Conservation and conservationists have been used to build political strategies that create major shifts in wealth. Dennis argues: “I wouldn’t say that there aren’t some conservation problems because there are… but they don’t justify what’s been done.” The Pacific Fisheries Restructuring Plan according to Dennis was to implement “zero fish mortality” for coho salmon.  Dennis explains a good coho stock could be in the hundreds while other types of salmon reproduce in the millions.  Because of their location, Dennis believes they have been largely affected by urban sprawl.  Tiny coho creeks have been harmed by farming, water diversion, logging, etc. 
It is Dennis’ belief that a more practical approach could have been taken.  He believes the Department of Fisheries and Oceans should cease its “rigid, inflexible fixed escapement approach” as it impedes the fishing of abundant stocks while attempting to allow the stocks labeled endangered to reach their optimum escapement targets. Denis says that this is the very policy that has caused density dependence problems on the more productive stocks while doing little to improve the weaker stocks. Instead, he agrees with Dr. Walters’ recommendation to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans – to adopt a less radical and more balanced approach called the fixed harvest rate policy.  This policy, which allowed a certain portion of each stock to be harvested within safe margins and attempted to gradually rebuild weaker stocks, was in place for decades.  “And it worked”, said Dennis. 
Dennis also cautions that some important terms may have been misinterpreted when it came to conservation.  While words like overfishing may have been used, he says that there is certainly a difference between fishing stocks that did not reach their maximum yield (msy) and that of endangered fish. Different methods of management could be used for each of those situations and at no time were any stocks truly endangered.
Dennis also notes that some have called the calamitous collapse of sockeye the “Anderson slide” after the implementation of the weak stock management plan. “…the harshly restrictive approach leads to some of the few but very productive major stocks particularly in the Fraser River having too many spawners and then their productivity rates falling almost overnight and that lead to 2009.” 
Dennis does not believe that conclusive evidence has been provided to prove that climate change or fish farms are the cause of the decline. He states that while he is not a supporter of fish farms he does not believe they were the single cause of the decline.  He uses the same reasoning for his elimination of both fish farms and climate change possibilities. “A very prominent reason I don’t is the enigma of 2009 with an almost non-return even though there was a large return of spawners in 2005 and then the phenomenon of 2010, which I estimate at 40 million Fraser sockeye came back, which was bigger than any return ever recorded since Europeans came to this continent.”  He asks, how could it be global warming or habitat loss or fish farms? “How could you have those two events back to back?”  
Dennis explains that prior to the policies of the 90s fish cycles of the Fraser River sockeye conformed to cyclic patterns. They had their ups and downs; the fish had “sorted themselves out” as a function of natural selectivity in order to survive the problems of predation and over grazing of food through thousands of years of evolution.  Strong stocks would happen frequently in different areas, but as new regulations changed fishing practices it also changed the cycle of the fish causing bigger ups and downs in their cycle.  This would lead to huge numbers of fish one year followed by very low populations of fish for many years following.  In the past he said the fish stocks had been doing so well that they even created a smaller second cycle. Dennis ends off the conversation about policies with “You don’t need to spend a lot of money; you just have to get back in harmony with those stocks and let them rebuild”. 

So what can fish harvesters do to improve the situation?

Dennis believes that fish harvesters should also join fish harvester representative organizations. Dennis is one of the founding members of the Canadian Council of Professional Fish Harvesters and is a strong advocate of the work the Council does. He notes that small groups currently exist but they often have different interests. He’d like to see more unified groups before ownership of the public property falls completely into private hands.  This could produce a counter proposal “to the Pearce’s of the world”. 
Dennis humbly tells us “I’m just a fishing person but I’ve spent a lot of time learning the technical stuff because it’s so politicized.” He suggests that fish harvester arm themselves with technical knowledge.  He notes that fish harvesters often walk into meetings and are besieged with technical verbiage, models and statistics.
There’s a gap in the language between government, science and fish harvesters that spreads far.  He says many of the subjects at the meetings could be boiled down simply but are often muddied up with technical jargon. He also notes that the scientists and government omit the incredible depth of knowledge fish harvesters have.  
Dennis offers a solution to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. He suggests using the fish harvester workforce and to “empower local managers to count fry and better data from controlled commercial fisheries”.  And to interest groups, rather than believe that fish harvesters are their foes, that working along with them could produce practical solutions.  If you can work with fish harvesters you’ll discover that they are “the most willing to do the right thing for the fish”.