Climate change, collapsing runs, and severe imbalance in fisheries are leading to calls for changes to the Pacific Salmon Treaty and even consumer boycotts.
TAKE A HARD LOOK at that frozen sockeye salmon in the supermarket freezer marked “sustainably caught in Alaska.”
There’s a good chance the fish was heading home to B.C. spawning grounds when caught by Alaskan fishers and, with many B.C. salmon runs struggling to survive, the claim of sustainability is questionable, even though Alaskan salmon is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council.
“Alaska is increasingly taking a larger percentage of the total catch while [Canada is] curtailing its own fisheries to account for the decline,” said David Mills, Watershed Watch Salmon Society wild salmon and watersheds campaigner.
Watershed Watch, a non-profit advocacy organization that promotes wild salmon and watershed conservation, estimates a startling 2.1 million fish of Canadian origin were caught in the Southeast Alaskan fishery in 2022, with most caught by the net fishery on the outside waters of the Alaskan Panhandle.
It is infuriating that, this year, Alaska is closing the fishery on the inside waters of the Alaska Panhandle because of conservation concerns, but the fishery will go ahead on the outside waters, Mills said. “Data has shown that 97 percent of those fish are not from Alaska,” he said.
As part of the campaign to reduce Alaskan interceptions of B.C. salmon, conservation groups plan to take the case to consumers in Canada and the U.S.
“If Alaska’s fishery managers aren’t willing to change their behaviour, we’re going straight to their customers,” Mills said.
The interceptions affect communities as diverse as Revelstoke, Kispiox, Port Alberni and Duncan according to Watershed Watch and SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, which have created an interactive map showing species of salmon intercepted and their home waters.
The 2022 figures follow a technical report on the 2021 fishery, commissioned by Watershed Watch and SkeenaWild, with numbers compiled from genetic tests and information from the Pacific Salmon Commission, which found fishers in Southeast Alaska caught 800,000 sockeye and an unknown number of chinook and steelhead which are regarded as bycatch. Unlike in the Canadian fishery, Alaskans are not required to report bycatch.
The 2021 fishery took place at a time when First Nations were not able to fulfill their food fishery quotas and 60 per cent of commercial fishing in B.C. was shut down because of low fish numbers.
The total sockeye catch in B.C. that year was 110,000 fish. The federal government, looking at severely depleted salmon runs, initiated a fishing licence buy-back program as part of the $647-million Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative.
Killer whales may get a break
A recent ruling by a U.S. federal judge could help the situation, but is not sufficient to address the issue. Heralded as a lifesaver for the Southern Resident Killer Whales by the Wild Fish Conservancy, the ruling effectively closes the Southeast Alaska commercial troll fishery, which catches Chinook off the Alaska panhandle. Chinook are considered essential prey for Southern Resident Killer Whales and scientists have concluded lack of food is one of the major reasons the population is struggling.
U.S. District Judge Richard Jones vacated permits for the fishery after finding that the fishery takes food from endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales and that plans by the National Marine Fisheries Service to prevent salmon from overfishing and protect the endangered whales were too vague.
Jones concluded that the fishing permits violate the Endangered Species Act by not mitigating the impacts of the fishery and ordered NMFS to rewrite plans for managing the fishery.
The court ruling came after the Wild Fish Conservancy sued the National Marine Fisheries Service, arguing that the remaining 73 whales need more Chinook salmon if they are to survive.
Emma Helverson, Wild Fish Conservancy executive director, stated in a news release, “This court decision is the largest victory for the Southern Resident Killer Whales in decades and will be celebrated internationally.”
“What’s more, by allowing far more wild Chinook to return home to their spawning grounds, this action is also helping to recover and restore wild Chinook from rivers throughout Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, essential to rebuilding both populations in the long term,” she said.
The ruling is being appealed by the State of Alaska and the Alaska Trollers Association and it is unclear whether the summer fishery will go ahead while the appeals are pending.
Alaska Governor Michael Dunleavy said Alaska will not tolerate the suspension of its fisheries while other West Coast fisheries “equally or more impactful to killer whales” remain open.
“If this decision sticks, we will be looking at having all fisheries that affect these killer whales being treated equally under the law,” he said in a news release.
Amy Daugherty, Alaska Trollers Association executive director has argued that science shows the main reasons for the declining numbers of Southern Resident Killer Whales are habitat loss, such as B.C.’s industrialization of the Stikine and Fraser rivers, pollution, vessel noise and dams—not the small boat troll fishery.
A new treaty is what’s really needed
While Alaska, B.C., Oregon and Washington State all harvest salmon hatched in other areas, the high numbers of Alaskan interceptions are fuelling calls for the Pacific Salmon Commission to look at re-opening sections of the Pacific Salmon Treaty. The treaty, dating back to 1985, is not due to be renegotiated until 2028/29.
The Commission, with representatives from the U.S. and Canada, oversees the treaty, which is designed to manage interceptions of fish and ensure both countries receive benefits equal to the production of salmon in their waters.
While Canadian conservation groups say Alaska is not sticking to the spirit of the treaty, Alaskans point out that the state is not breaking any rules.
So that means it is time to change the rules, say critics, including some B.C. First Nations who say the treaty no longer reflects reality as communities struggle to find enough fish for food and ceremonial purposes.
The Tsilhqot’in Nation is calling on Canada to initiate an independent review of the treaty and for the contentious District 104 fishery, which catches mixed salmon stocks on the outside waters of the Alaskan Panhandle, to be closed.
Chief Joe Alphonse, Tsilhqot’in National Government Tribal Chair, said it is outrageous that Alaskans are intercepting fish bound for Tsilhqot’in Title Lands.
“What we are seeing here is nothing less than economic interests trumping major impacts to the wellbeing of the Tsilhqot’in people,” he said in a news release.
Nathan Cullen, provincial Minister of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship, whose Stikine riding encompasses iconic salmon rivers such as the Sheena and Nass, frequently gets an earful from constituents about the problem, but the Province’s role is limited as marine fisheries are the responsibility of the federal government.
Staff and politicians have discussed the problem with U.S counterparts and Cullen is encouraged that, as federal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray is passionate about saving wild fish, Canada is will be more assertive at the negotiating table.
“The fish don’t wait for 10 years if there’s a problem… The fish move, they don’t carry passports and we have a strong interest in having a good cohesive strategy,” said Cullen adding that wild salmon are iconic to Americans and Canadians and it makes sense for both countries to work together on targeted protections.
“We are all in this together. We all live downstream of someone else… It doesn’t help if (Alaska) is intercepting 70 to 80 per cent of vulnerable stocks,” Cullen said.
Interceptions are not the only problem affecting wild salmon. B.C. comes in for heavy criticism for habitat loss due to logging, mining and development. Alaskans point to ongoing concern over B.C. mines on the Alaskan border, some with tailings ponds above Alaska’s most productive salmon rivers, and the continued failure of B.C to clean up the defunct Tulsequah Chief mine which has been leaching toxic acid mine discharge into surrounding waterways for decades.
Cullen said changes are underway on this front with the $100-million provincial watershed protection program. “We have stepped up our game significantly in the last little while,” he said.
Federal Fisheries Minister Murray was not available for comment, but Fisheries and Oceans Canada, in a carefully-worded statement in answer to questions from Focus, said both Canada and the U.S. catch salmon originating from each other’s country and the goal of the treaty is sustainability and conservation of less abundant stocks.
“Canadian-origin sockeye salmon caught in southeast Alaskan fisheries are primarily captured incidentally in fisheries specifically targeting U.S-origin pink salmon and there are a number of treaty provisions intended to limit sockeye interceptions for specific populations (e.g. Skeena and Nass sockeye,)” says the e-mailed DFO statement.
But safeguards put in place years ago may no longer be working.
For example, there are limits on the outer panhandle fisheries until late July to protect sockeye returning to the Nass and Skeena rivers, but those runs have been getting later in the season, meaning fish are swimming through Alaskan waters as the fishery is in full swing.
While Canadian commissioners believe later returns demonstrate changing conditions, Alaskan commissioners argue that later runs during the last seven years do not necessarily indicate a trend.
Climate change is making it difficult to accurately predict salmon abundance each year and, while some stocks have record low abundance, others have record high numbers, according to DFO
So, should both countries consider renegotiating the treaty through the lens of climate change and collapsing runs?
One point of agreement between the U.S. and Canada is that more information and data is needed before taking drastic steps.
Ongoing scientific work will help better understand environmental changes and impacts on salmon, said DFO, stopping short of demanding changes.
“This information will help to inform future management responses including where renegotiation of current treaty provisions may be required in the future,” DFO said.
John Field, Pacific Salmon Commission executive secretary, said although the treaty is renegotiated every 10 years, annual performance reviews allow for interim changes and the panhandle fishery interceptions were discussed earlier this year.
While both countries agree that Alaska is adhering to the terms of the treaty and there is little argument about the number of fish caught, there is disagreement on whether interceptions pose a long-term threat to Nass and Skeena sockeye and Chinook, and whether the late run timings are a blip or a long-term trend, Field said.
“Alaska continues to state that their harvest rates are not posing a threat to the long-term survival of B.C. salmon, whereas the Canadian delegation believes it is a point of concern,” Field said.
Each country has four delegates and four alternates on the commission, but decisions come down to one vote from each country.
“It’s like a marriage when you have two spouses disagreeing on how to tackle a problem. You just keep negotiating and figure out a solution that’s acceptable to both,” Field said.
“It’s not rocket science, it’s much, much harder,” he said.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game fishery scientist Dani Evenson said the treaty may not be perfect, but it is the best mechanism available for balancing conservation and fisheries.
“Just about every fishery subject to the treaty is an interception fishery. If there were no interceptions we wouldn’t need this treaty,” Evenson said.
“Is it a perfect mechanism? No. When you’re dealing with fish, it never goes according to plan. . . it’s imperfect science, but it’s the best we have,” she said.
For example, it is particularly complicated when it comes to Chinook as populations from Oregon, Washington and B.C feed in the Gulf of Alaska and, as they return to their home rivers, fish run a gauntlet of fisheries and predators with Alaska first in line, Evenson said.
“That’s by far and away the most complicated part of the treaty because it affects us all and covers such a large area and so many jurisdictions,” she said. There are occasional miscalculations when people further down the line do not get the number of fish they were expecting, but pointing fingers is not helpful, Evenson said.
For conservation-oriented organizations such as Watershed Watch, however, the bottom line is that, in the face of climate change and poor ocean survival, fisheries problems must be addressed. The data makes clear “significant Alaskan exploitation on many BC populations” of salmon.
“All of us live in communities that are in a race to conserve dwindling salmon stocks like Chinook and sockeye and all of us are seeing a higher percentage of the catch ending up in Alaska’s nets,” Mills said.
For more information about the campaign to protect BC’s wild salmon and a link to the report on Alaska’s role, see here.
Judith Lavoie is a freelance journalist who enjoys exploring stories about the natural world and Indigenous issues, along with the politics around them.