Alarmed at how few humpbacks had returned to our rain deprived streams this fall, I called Ms. Katie Beach, the newly minted Pink and Chum Salmon stock assessment biologist for Fisheries and Oceans Canada in Skeena.
The test index figures for pinks and chum were abysmal. Chum figures always range from poor to dismal, but pink stats never do, or never have. I wanted to know what strategies her colleagues had employed because of this. Ms. Beach was quick to point out that she had only hit the tarmac on Kaien Island a short time ago and was still getting acclimatized to her surroundings. She had, however, been in her position long enough to realize that pinks were scarce and, to ground truth this, she had flown the Lakelse River the day before and seen only a few small schools of humpies.
I hastened to tell her that of the many rivers I’ve fished for the past four decades, the Lakelse is the closest to my heart, and that in years of low returns the little river of clams will usually host a few hundred thousand fish, and on bumper years she will open her arms to a million or more.
Did you see lots of vacant habitat, I asked her, knowing full well that she must have, for the Lakelse is, save for a few rocky reaches, a 12 kilometre spawning channel. Katie said she had.
I told the new pink/chum biologist of the sad returns to Kleanza, Dasque and Middle Creeks, and the Big Oliver, my indicator streams. She told me the returns seemed to be depressed all over the north coast and suggested that the giant area of warm water commonly know as “the Blob” may have had a deleterious effect on the plankton that comprise a large chunk of humpy feed (thus giving the little salmon their pink flesh and their name) and their diminished number might be a result. This is a reasonable theory, as is the one that humpies may be in competition for limited food sources with the millions of ocean-ranched salmon sent out into the North Pacific by Japan and Alaska every year. But, at the end of the day, we have to admit that we just don’t know enough about salmon in the sea.
What we do know is that vigorous net fisheries intent on catching other species of salmon work the pathways pinks take when they are home river bound. We can control those through limitation and/or elimination.
If you happened to look down from the Old Bridge this summer you would have seen gill nets strung out by the Kitselas. The indigenous people who operated those nets weren’t after pinks,; they were after sockeye, but, because they are using an inhumane non-selective method of fishing that was introduced to them by Second Nations folk, they killed pinks, dogs, steelhead, and chinook by accident. Gill netting goes on at many sites up river as well and the toll on non-target fish is substantial, just as it is at the mouth of the Skeena where the commercial fishery has fishing indiscriminately for a couple of centuries.
In 1987 former Norwegian PM Gro Harlem Brundtland chaired the World Commission on Environment and Development that birthed the report “Our Common Future”, a brilliant ground-breaking work that essentially laid out what we would have to do to survive as a species. Flowing from that monumental report were several key principles that have become universally accepted wisdom in the 21st century. One involved the sustainability of any enterprise. Another highlighted the critical importance of biological diversity to ecological health. And, a third was the precautionary principle, essentially anticipating the worst case then erring on the side of caution.
Gill netting, specifically, and the other ways of prosecuting the commercial fishery, in general, violate all of the aforementioned principles. It’s long past time we stopped chasing fish around the sea in boats. Doing so is an artifact of the 19th Century.
The Brundtland Commission taught us that we only do we need all species of salmon in abundance, but that we need healthy representation from all the discrete runs of fish within each species to achieve any measure of biological certainty. Thus, for example, having a massive run of sockeye to the Fulton/Pinkut River while smaller runs are blinking out like defective Christmas lights, as a result of fisheries that can’t discriminate between them, is contrary to common ecological sense.
The proper response to the 2018 plight of pinks is to shut down the fisheries that impact them and only allow fisheries that avoid their capture like indigenous dip net or fish wheel fisheries.
When I got off the phone with Katie Beach, I was sad. She will soon learn that her managerial colleagues, as demonstrated by their past performance, don’t care a fig for chum or pinks. Sockeye is the hub of their wheel, and Gro Brundtland, and their mandate to be stewards of fish on our behalf, be damned, the status quo will be maintained.