Treaty failing to protect North Coast, B.C. salmon from Alaskan commercial fisheries: report

Pink and chum salmon fill the Sheldon Jackson Hatchery fish ladder at the Sitka Sound Science Center in Sitka, Alaska, on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021. (Reber Stein / The Daily Sitka Sentinel via AP)

The Pacific Salmon Treaty is failing to protect North Coast and B.C. salmon from Alaskan commercial fisheries, a new report released jointly by Skeena Wild Conservation Trust (SWCT) and Watershed Watch Salmon Society (WWSS), on Jan. 11, states.

The Alaskan Interceptions of BC Salmon: State of Knowledge report indicates nearly 34 million pink salmon, with an unknown amount being of Canadian origin, were caught in Southeast Alaskan interception fisheries last year.

“The governments of Canada and B.C. need to stand up right now and do something about this Alaskan plunder,” Aaron Hill, executive director of WWSS, said.

The responsibility to deal with the consequences falls squarely on the desk of Joyce Murray, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, Skeena Bulkely MP Taylor Bachrach, told The Northern View on Jan. 13.

“The minister needs to do more to stand up for Canadian interests at the Pacific Salmon Commission,” the MP said. “Those conversations are happening right now in Vancouver. I certainly hope that the issues raised in this report are brought up as part of those conversations.”

“Alaskan fisheries are now the biggest harvesters of a growing number of depleted Canadian salmon populations,” Hill said.

In the summer of 2021, nearly 60 per cent of B.C. salmon fisheries were closed by the federal government, in order to restock the marine resource, after population numbers hit record lows.

Many of B.C.'s largest salmon runs pass through Alaskan waters on their way home to spawn in Canadian rivers.

“While commercial fishing was nearly non-existent in B.C. last summer, Alaskan fleets just across the border logged over 3,000 boat-days and harvested almost 800,000 sockeye (most of which were of Canadian origin),” both WWSS and SWCT stated in a joint press release.

In addition to sockeye, tens of thousands of Canadian Chinook and Coho were also harvested, as well as large but unknown numbers of co-migrating Canadian pink, chum, and steelhead, many of which come from threatened and endangered populations, they stated.

Also indicated was that more than 1.2 million chum were caught, with an unknown number of them returning in the co-migration to B.C. during a time when North and Central Coast chum populations were at very low levels. Hundreds of thousands of genetically distinct Nass and Skeena salmon, from 82 regional species, were also reported to have been caught across the border.

“We knew the Alaskans were intercepting a lot of B.C. salmon … but these numbers are staggering,” Greg Knox, executive director of SWCT, said.

The species' migratory routes returning to provincial waterways run through Southeast Alaskan fishery district 104, which begins less than 150 km north-west of Prince Rupert and is located on the western-most coast of the Alaskan panhandle. The report suggests district 104 is where most of the returning fish are caught, often as bycatch (unintentional harvested species).

“I'm also appalled at their failure to report their bycatch of non-target species, which Canadian fishers are required to do,” Knox said.

In October Bachrach engaged in a visit to Washington to speak to Alaskan delegates specifically about the need for salmon protection.

“The measures in the original 1/8 Pacific Salmon 3/8 treaty are no longer up to the task of protecting B.C. salmon,” he said, on Jan. 13.

“ 1/8 The 3/8 treaty was first negotiated back in 1985, at a time of relative abundance, and it was really a treaty focused on the sharing of economic benefits. Today in 2022, the context around wild salmon in B.C. is dramatically different. We have a huge conservation concern. We've seen stocks decline precipitously.”

Since the treaty was first signed many Canadian and American salmon stocks have declined to a point of being threatened or endangered. Canada started to close its interception fishing in northern B.C. in the 1990s to protect southern migrating salmon. Alaska now has the only major commercial net interception fisheries in place that target salmon and steelhead returning to another jurisdiction, WWSS and SWCT issued as background information to their press release.

Potential impacts of Alaskan harvesters on endangered salmon and steelhead population as well as possible gaps in the state's monitoring of responsible fisheries management are also highlighted in the report.

“Canadian fishers and taxpayers are making incredible sacrifices to protect and rebuild our salmon runs, while the Alaskan interception fishery continues unchecked. It is irresponsible of both countries to continue to allow this,” Hill said.

Some chapters of the maritime treaty are set to renew in 2028.

“We can't wait until 2028 to fix it,” Hill said.

Fish harvesting in Alaska has downstream effects on First Nations communities in B.C.

“There are 1/8 Indigenous 3/8 communities that haven't been able to fulfill their constitutionally protected rights to food fisheries for years and years,” Bachrach said. “There are also indigenous nations that are working so hard to rebuild diminished runs of wild salmon and for these weak stocks, even a small percentage mortality can have a really detrimental impact.”

Fairness is one of the concepts that underline the international treaty and underscores Canada's relationship with the U.S. when it comes to wild salmon, Bachrach said.

“One of the basic principles is the idea that Canadians and Americans should benefit from the resource in proportion to our respective country's capacity to produce them,” he said.

Though mostly talked about in the context of who gets to catch how many fish, Bachrach said B.C. is in a place where it needs to focus on salmon conservation and on rebuilding the abundance and diversity of the natural resource.

“We need to come together around a vision of rebuilding because we've seen such troubling declines over the decades - and that's where my focus really is,” Bachrach said.