Photo: Alexandra Scott

Hear no Evil, See no Evil: The Plight of B.C.’s Salmon and Steelhead stocks

The BC Wildlife Federation and other fish conservation organizations have observed for decades that commercial harvest interests have driven salmon management in B.C. Only in more recent years have the constitutional rights of Indigenous people been brought into the allocation equation. There are three reasons for the continual decline of most salmon and steelhead stocks: Ocean survival, climate change and harvest. Yes, freshwater habitat deterioration is an issue in some instances, but there are many examples throughout British Columbia where pristine habitat lies vacant because there are no fish left to use it.

Of the three main factors, we can only control harvest, yet collectively, we have failed to manage intelligently to ensure the conservation of various stocks. Why? There is no other way of saying it: greed and fear of change. Politicians of all stripes have been complicit in ignoring the demise of individual weak stocks by permitting harvest to trump conservation. Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has relegated conservation to a secondary concern so it is little wonder that First Nations, the angling public and increasingly the general public have become alarmed at the status of our salmon and steelhead stocks. One only has to look at DFO’s mandate to realize that conservation is not the primary interest — commercial harvest is. The Fraser and Skeena systems cry out for better management.

Salmon managers need to immediately pull back from their antiquated goal of trying to manage stocks to maximum sustained yield. This means significantly reducing harvest now so that our salmon runs can demonstrate their recovery potential and restore abundance to levels that meet conservation and First Nation requirements and provide the opportunity for harvest. It clearly entails immediate pain for all to achieve longer-term gain. Is there any political will to take this on?

In order to achieve the desired outcome, we need to change how and where salmon are caught. Non-selective net fisheries need to be eliminated, not just “tweaked.” Terminal fisheries need to be emphasized, and First Nations-led selective fishing methods need to take on a far greater role. To date, senior DFO staff with single authority have ignored their scientists and the public by marginalizing conservation concerns to satisfy commercial interests. This systemic failure has been clearly evident for a century. DFO has squandered yesteryear’s abundance of wild salmon and increasingly pointed to climate change and ocean survival as the culprits—this is called deflection.  Despite the monumental investments in planning processes and addiction to hatchery “solutions”, we find ourselves with an ever-growing list of salmon stocks that are in serious peril of becoming extinct. Hatcheries and the indiscriminately mixed stock fisheries they have created are the crowning examples of failed management.

There are some quick-fix solutions to the situation we find ourselves in, but it means lowered expectations, short term declining revenues and opportunities across all sectors. Is there a politician out there prepared to champion conservation over all else?  The current situation speaks volumes of failure. Change needs to take place immediately.   Many well-informed people with strong fisheries backgrounds both within and outside the BCWF echo these sentiments. Far greater involvement by First Nations and the public in the decision-making process is required.  If we want a future for our salmon, conservation must trump all other interests.

~Article submitted by Harvey Andrusak, fisheries biologist and BCWF Past President 

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