The Pacific Salmon Treaty (PST) is under fire following a report suggesting that Alaskan fisheries are impacting struggling salmon populations by intercepting a significant number of B.C.-bound fish.
Commissioned by Watershed Watch Salmon Society and SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, the report was released on Jan. 11, in conjunction with the U.S. and Canada’s annual review of bilateral management under the treaty.
Advocates say this came as no surprise and that in order to see change, the public needs to apply pressure on both sides of the border.
Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation Natural Resources Manager Saya Masso said the issue of Alaskan fisheries intercepting B.C.’s endangered populations is something that’s addressed “rather poorly” on Canada’s behalf at the Pacific Salmon Treaty.
“We’ve been aware of this management issue for a while,” he said.
In recent years, B.C. salmon numbers have hit record lows. Only two wild chinook salmon returned to the upper Kennedy watershed in 2021, meaning the population has seen a 98 per cent decrease, according to the Central Westcoast Forest Society.
Aaron Hill, Watershed Watch Salmon Society executive director, said the report has ignited conversations with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), but he isn’t hopeful the government will tackle the matter.
The issue has now fallen into the hands of Global Affairs Canada, which is “balancing a whole raft of issues,” said Greg Taylor, Watershed Watch fisheries advisor and one of the report’s authors.
“To have expectations that suddenly Canada is going to make a change, or coerce Alaska into making substantive changes into its fishery, would be naive,” he said.
More than funding needed for a solution
Claire Teichman, press secretary for Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray, said the department knows “how important it is to protect and restore the pacific salmon population.”
“That’s why our government has committed $647 million to the Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative,” she said. “This is the largest investment Canada has made in salmon.”
Hill said it will take more than funding to solve the problem.
“The solution for these interception fisheries in southeast Alaska is to move them to areas where they're only targeting Alaskan fish,” he said. “[Alaska’s] constitution prohibits overfishing. They need to apply that same principle to the B.C.-origin fish that are migrating through their waters.”
Under Alaskan law, it would be illegal “if they were doing to Alaskan fish what they're doing to our fish,” said Hill.
Doug Vincent-Lang, Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) commissioner, criticized the report saying it was an “unfair and biased attack on Alaska salmon fisheries.”
Management of southeast Alaska salmon fisheries is consistent with the Pacific Salmon Treaty, he said.
Taylor said the report doesn’t dispute that.
“If you look at the world through the lens of the treaty, they are abiding by the treaty,” he said. “They’re probably fishing less than what the treaty would allow … but if you look at it from a conservation point of view, they're very much fishing very heavily on our populations, to the point where they're taking major proportions of our populations, and limiting or eliminating our fishers’ abilities to fish.”
No endangered salmon in Alaska
Of the 62 salmon populations Canada’s Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife have assessed, 41 per cent are classified as endangered; 18 per cent are threatened, 14 per cent are special concern; 5 per cent are extinct, and only 18 per cent are not at risk, said Taylor.
Alaska, on the other hand, doesn’t have any stocks listed under the Endangered Species Act, said Dani Evenson, ADF&G fishery scientist.
“Part of that is because we were developed later,” she said. “But part of it is also that we have very aggressive policies in the state of Alaska.”
Since 1959, sustainable fishing in Alaska has been the law after the state wrote it into its constitution.
“We monitor all of our stocks,” Evenson said. “We know exactly what's happening in-season, post-season [and] we do forecasts so we can target our fisheries accordingly. Under the treaty, our obligations are a little bit different.”
The treaty requirements for each species and region are different, but all are designed to accomplish the same thing; “to share the burden of conservation and the available harvest,” she said.
Despite that, Evenson said the report required “more due diligence.”
“It’s one-sided,” she said. “They didn’t report on the Canadian intercept of U.S. stocks.”
According to the Pacific Salmon Commission, mixed stock commercial Chinook fisheries continue to operate in Northern B.C. and off the West Coast of Vancouver Island.
“Interception net fisheries [in B.C.] have been largely discontinued to protect Canadian salmon,” Taylor said. “What fisheries remain have been moved more terminal to reduce interceptions.”
Interceptions on both sides of the border
The Pacific Salmon Commission (PSC) is a regulatory body that was formed to assist in the Pacific Salmon Treaty’s implementation. Employed by both the U.S. and Canada, the commission relays information between the countries, convenes meetings and publishes reports.
In 1999, PSC Executive Secretary John Field said the treaty switched from rigid harvest limits to abundance-based management, reflecting the countries’ focus on sustainability.
Field said that while there are no listed endangered Chinook populations in the state of Alaska, there are many listed populations of chinook in the Puget Sound and the Columbia River.
“It’s those Puget Sound and Columbia River-listed stocks that are intercepted in the Canadian fisheries,” he said. “Canada intercepts Washington and Oregon fish, and Alaska intercepts B.C. and southern U.S. fish.”
Because of Alaska’s geography, Field said the state typically doesn’t see their fish being intercepted as heavily in southern locations.
“This picture that’s being painted of Alaska as this unstoppable juggernaut that’s intercepting everyone’s chinook from Canada is just false,” said Field. “They have taken steps in Alaska to protect Canadian origin salmon to the degree of shutting down fisheries for years at a time by the Yukon.”
Fisheries science isn’t rocket science, said Field. “It’s much harder,” he added.
It doesn’t serve Alaska to over-harvest other stocks, Evenson said.
“We want to harvest in proportion,” she said. “The goal is to ensure the long-term sustainability of all of these stocks because that’s what pays dividends in the fisheries.”
Both 2019 and 2020 saw two of the smallest Fraser River sockeye runs within the last 100 years, according to the PSC.
These staggering numbers prompted former fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan to close 60 per cent of B.C.’s commercial salmon fisheries in June 2021.
But as Canadian fishing boats sat idle, the report argues that in recent years, commercial catch of Canadian-bound salmon is higher in Alaska than it is in Canada.
At the Pacific Salmon Commission’s annual meeting in Vancouver in late February, Field said Xeni Gwet'in First Nation Elected Chief Jimmy Lulua addressed the commission about the report during the public comment period.
“That was the only time the report emerged during the commissioners’ discussions at the meeting,” Field said.
Teichman maintained that “DFO officials are actively engaged with their U.S. counterparts through the Pacific Salmon Commission to exchange information on fishery harvests, environmental changes and the achievement of conservation objectives under the treaty.”
The treaty was formed to balance interceptions, Taylor argued. It wasn’t formed to conserve or restore depleted populations, he added.
“We've got a process as a treaty that's really not designed to do the job anymore, and it cannot,” said Taylor. “To expect it to do so, in its current format, would be foolish.”
‘Interception fishery’ caught millions in 2021
The District 104 fishery, which is located on the outside of the Alaskan panhandle, is what Hill described as the “worst culprit” for catching a large ratio of a variety of Canadian salmon species.
In 2021, around 10.7 million pink salmon, 495,000 sockeye, 20,000 chinook, 130,000 coho, and over 212,000 chum were caught in the District 104 fishery alone, read the report.
“The proportion of Canadian salmon in the catch, and the certainty of the estimates, varies by species,” the report added.
Taylor said the District 104 exists as a “mixed-stock fishery and an interception fishery.”
The Alaska pink salmon migrate past the District 104 fishery while traveling to their spawning streams further inside water, he said.
Even if the fishery moved, Taylor argued, District 104 would be able to fish the population it claims it’s targeting.
“The only thing they wouldn't catch any longer is our fish,” he said.
But moving the District 104 fishery to inside water so it can focus on Alaska-bound runs would present a “significant challenge” because it would be unable to target the more abundant wild Alaska pink salmon, said Evenson.
“That's where the pink salmon are and where the harvest potential is,” she said. “Moving this fishery into inside waters would likely mean picking up other stocks of all species.”
When a treaty has only two countries in it, there’s an inherent veto power vested in each country when negotiating language and mandates, Field explained.
“In the case of District 104 fisheries, the agreed [to] treaty language allows Alaska to pursue their fisheries in particular areas,” Field said.
This puts the Canadian government in a “very difficult situation,” said Taylor.
“We're not going to make these changes through the Canadian government, we're not going to make these changes through the treaty – but maybe we can make them through the marketplace,” he said.
Taylor has worked in the B.C. seafood industry for over 30 years and said this is the first time he’s come across a “pretty simple solution to reducing by-catch of Canadian fish by 50 or 60 per cent.”
“It doesn't cost Alaska anything in terms of harvest of its own fish,” he said. “But the impact would be significantly reduced on Canadian fish.”