The ongoing overharvest of salmon and steelhead has repressed current populations to under 10% of their historic abundance
What could be simpler than the concept of overharvest? If you take too many animals from a population, they will be unable to replace themselves and the population will decline. Overharvest dates back to the earliest days of commercial fishing in the Pacific Northwest and salmon and steelhead populations have declined more or less continuously since the first industrialized fishing began in the mid-19th century. At present, most wild populations are hovering somewhere between 1 and 10% of their historic abundance, prompting major concern about ongoing problems of overharvest.
Mixed stock fisheries which intercept salmon and steelhead from many different runs are a particular conservation challenge because harvest rates that have been tailored to more robust populations are often unsustainable for smaller, less productive stocks. During their migration south along the continental shelf from feeding grounds in the Gulf of Alaska to spawning tributaries in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, salmon are subject to intense harvest by sport and commercial fishermen. Harvest in ocean fisheries like these gives local managers little capacity to reduce harvest rates and in many years as much as 70% of the harvest of listed Puget Sound Chinook occurs outside of Washington State, mostly in Alaska and British Columbia.
Bycatch; the incidental catch of steelhead in fisheries targeting salmon is also a major problem throughout their range. Sockeye fisheries on the Skeena River take a heavy toll on returning summer steelhead and the world famous Dean River loses hundreds if not thousands of returning adults to chum fisheries in the Dean Channel in many years. These problems are not unique to British Columbia, and steelhead migrating in the Columbia River are routinely caught in gillnets targeting salmon. In response to concerns about bycatch of fragile wild populations and non-target species the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is working with tribal and non-tribal commercial fishermen to develop selective fisheries on hatchery salmon and steelhead which allow for the safe release of wild fish.
Harvest remains a significant impediment to recovery throughout much of the range of salmon and steelhead, however it is not an intractable problem. High seas catches are regulated through the Pacific Salmon Treaty and in recent years managers have been working to reduce the exploitation of depressed stocks in Alaskan and Canadian fisheries. Fisheries targeting abundant hatchery returns still catch far too many wild fish and the sustainability of sport and commercial fisheries depends on the implementation of mark selective fisheries, allowing fishermen to harvest fin clipped hatchery fish and safely release wild fish. Selective commercial fisheries are in their infancy, however with strong support from fishermen and state agencies there is hope that the use of selective fishing gear will eventually become widespread ensuring a future for wild salmon and steelhead as well as sport and commercial salmon fisheries.