Discards

In my home, and I suspect in yours too, we have a prohibition against waste, a sense that a fish killed then poorly cooked, or allowed to spoil, is a fish that has died in vain. Wasting a fish that has such an important role to play in the river environment is more than a shame, it’s a sin.

In my home, and I suspect in yours too, we have a prohibition against waste, a sense that a fish killed then poorly cooked, or allowed to spoil, is a fish that has died in vain. Wasting a fish that has such an important role to play in the river environment is more than a shame, it’s a sin.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the putative stewards of the fisheries resource, the very people charged with the welfare of salmon, don’t share this ethic. I offer some examples as proof of this statement.       As of the beginning of August this year, commercial fishermen reported that they had discarded 574 steelhead in Skeena sockeye fisheries. This claim is problematic. Fisheries and Oceans Canada (FOC) estimated the steelhead harvest rate was around 15% at that time. The average Skeena steelhead return is very conservatively estimated at around 30,000 fish, which means the number of steelhead discards should be around 4,500 fish, the vast majority of which did not survive. This is just more evidence that salmon and steelhead discards in commercial fisheries are under reported.

Where does this negative bias come from? Every gillnet boat should have a camera on board to monitor its catch. The camera should be paid for by the skipper and should be a condition of license. The recorded tapes should be reviewed on a random basis by FOC personnel. The tab for this service should also be borne by the vessel operator. This is what happens on other types of fishing craft, but something very different happens on gill netters. Gill netters operate on the honour system. They provide hail data. In the past, fisheries officers, who live in the same community as the fishers they are canvassing, powered up alongside and asked the gillnetters if they’d caught any steelhead. The fisherman, knowing that a large steelhead interception could lead to a reduction in his fishing time, or a possible end to his fishing, then told the officer his steelhead bycatch. I understand that  fishers can now phone their hails in.

This lack of managerial rigour belongs to the century before last. It underscores the disdain FOC has for the principles of biodiversity and how wedded that bankrupt government institution is to the commercial fishing industry at the expense of all other users and the demands of the environment.

North Coast commercial salmon fishermen had discarded almost 22% of their total catch by August this year, including 1.2 million pounds of chum salmon, many coming from stocks FOC has described as being a special conservation concern. One-half of these chum discards came from areas in and around the Great Bear Rain forest.

Unlike most other BC fisheries, there are no independent observers to confirm the accuracy of the discard information provided by fishermen. At least two DFO science papers and a recent report by contractor J.O.Thomas and Associates have expressed concerns about fishermen under reporting their discards. This means that the number of fish reported by DFO as having been discarded should be considered a minimum estimate.

In addition, the absence of independent observers means that fisheries are not monitored to ensure fishermen abide by their terms of licence and return the discarded salmon back into the water with the least possible harm. There are no scientifically defensible estimates of the proportion of discarded chum that survive to spawn, but it is believed to be relatively low.

FOC requires that chums be discarded as a conservation measure. Yet, DFO cannot provide scientifically defensible estimates of how many chum salmon are discarded, the proportion that survive to spawn, the consequences of killing so many salmon from depressed populations, or the associated ecological costs.

Chums are of no commercial value on the north coast. They are a cost to fishermen. Discarding chums slows the fishing process. The objective is to discard the unwanted salmon as fast as possible, rather doing all that can be done to ensure they survive the encounter. Most of the impacted chum stocks are located in wild and remote areas of BC like the Great Bear Rain forest, isolated from the majority of BC’s population, and therefore out of sight, out of mind.

Chums are of enormous value to the ecosystems of the north. They carry the energy of sea inland where everything from aquatic benthos to bears benefits from their abundance. Yet, the institution charged with their well-being, and paid for by your tax dollars, is happy to leave them to the crabs.

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