If there is one thing that drives change in the world of fisheries it is the perception of disaster. In the British Columbia steelhead world one can look to the Skeena River steelhead returns of the early 1990s and then again in 2007 or, most recently, the DeanRiver. Most of the knowledgeable veterans of these rivers are aware of the scarcity of fish in the Dean this summer and they are quick to point fingers in the direction of the managers of the commercial net fisheries in the immediate approach waters. That situation is worth a bit of background to try and put things into context.
Summer steelhead in B.C. are subject to interception in both gill net and seine net fisheries targeting abundant salmon stocks. In the fisheries lexicon these fisheries are referred to as mixed stock fisheries. Steelhead are virtually always the least abundant species in these situations by virtue of their dependence on extended residence in relatively hostile river habitats before they ever descend to the ocean. Inter-annual variability in abundance is the order of the day for steelhead so there will always be good years and bad years from a fishing perspective. The Dean has enjoyed a short succession of good years recently but a sharp reversal occurred this summer. At least part of that can be attributed to unprecedented floods in September, 2010. Aggravating the situation, however, there has been an extensive net fishery by both gill nets and seines for pink and chum salmon in the immediate approaches to the river.
The business of high value summer steelhead being strained from the water by nets targeting low value species such as chum and pink salmon is nothing new, whether it be in the Dean approaches in 2013, the Skeena in any number of years gone by or the lower Fraser River almost every year in recent memory. The politics of attempting to get a greater proportion of the available steelhead safely past the nets can reasonably be called a growth industry. A central issue in all of this is the business of measures available to release non-target species when captured by nets. In the boardrooms and on paper the concept sounds reasonable – force the use of weed lines, retrieve nets after short sets, use shorter nets, have holding tanks on board to facilitate recovery before release, sort fish by brailing one relatively small bag of fish from the larger seine net pursed beside the vessel, etc. All of these conditions and regulations require strict compliance by fishing vessel crews to have even the most marginal benefit and none of them are worth the words or paper if there is never any vigilance on the fishing grounds. Unfortunately for the fish that is the virtually always the case.
A video clip of seine vessel crews fishing B.C. waters north of the Dean and south of the Skeena has been broadcast on numerous social media sites recently. It clearly demonstrates the behavior consistently denied by fishing industry participants and the management agency responsible (Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada). No doubt a sacrificial lamb will be ferreted out over this latest bit of undeniable evidence but no one should buy the righteous indignation claims of either side that this is rare or exceptional behavior. Extensive personal experience for over 20 years has taught me otherwise. One can’t help but trip over non-compliance in the approaches to the Skeena, for example, whenever one goes looking. The ultimate illustration of how little attention is paid by DFO is to push them for the data on how many charges have been laid by their enforcement officers over the past decade. I’ll offer there has been an order of magnitude more tickets written for anglers fishing with barbed hooks.
So, what are the solutions? First, if anyone is serious about conservation or reasonable allocation of a given species among competing user groups, the approach waters where mixed stock fisheries inevitably occur must be rid of gill nets. Even under strict adherence to conditions applied to fishing with those nets in places like the Skeena estuary it is simply not possible to teach a gill net, however configured or used, to catch a sockeye or pink salmon while not catching a steelhead or any other species of the moment swimming among them. And, if they do and try to release them “safely and unharmed” as regulations prescribe, they are subjected to repeat capture by another net and another and….. Try deploying a hundred or more gill nets along the migration corridor of a steelhead in the Skeena approaches or Dean Channel and then finding a path through that maze that wouldn’t encounter multiple nets. Try also to find a steelhead remaining in the top 40 in of the water column (i.e. the assumed safety zone when a weed line is deployed) when such a fleet is roaring about. Offering up on board observers to monitor vessel crew behavior is window dressing of the highest order, especially when the observers are commonly neophyte contractors with no enforcement authority.
Second, the seine fishing methods have to be fundamentally changed if non-target species are to receive the protection promised by regulation and policy. Time is money in any net fishery but especially with seines targeting low value species. Twenty sets a day when pink or chum salmon are the target is never going to save the other four species that cannot be retained. Five sets a day is much more realistic if, as prescribed, a seine net is to be brought on side and a brailer used to sort through the catch and safely release the non-target species. As long as there continues to be virtually no enforcement on the fishing grounds there remains every incentive for seiners to make as many sets as possible on every fishing opening, dump large brailer loads of fish directly onto the deck and kick mortally affected non-target species through the scuppers.
The answers to mixed stock fisheries have been staring us in the face for decades. As long as we sanction fishing with indiscriminate gear and ignore the realities of how that gear is applied we will continue to lop weak stocks off the bottom of a list that gets progressively shorter. Wild summer steelhead in the last bastion of their range are out of the sight and minds of the masses. They need advocates.
August 18, 2013