Is the Alaskan commercial fishery the real reason for the decline in BC salmon?

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‘Stop Alaskan Plunder’ demands the author of a new report that blames the decline of salmon in British Columbia on the province’s northern neighbour. 

Canadian and US representatives are meeting this week at the Pacific Salmon Commission — the agency responsible for the bilateral management of fish stocks of mutual concern under the Pacific Salmon Treaty.

One issue that will be raised is that of commercial fish harvesters in southeast Alaska netting significant amounts of threatened British Columbia salmon even though the bulk of Canada’s Pacific fleet is stranded on shore to conserve plummeting stocks.

A new study suggests that returning threatened B.C. salmon and steelhead stocks are being intercepted in large numbers by commercial harvesters in southeast Alaska. MAP: Courtesy of Watershed Watch Salmon Society

The decline of salmon runs in Canada’s westernmost province had been blamed squarely on salmon farming but a new study indicates that nearly 800,000 sockeye were caught in Alaskan fishing districts just north of the border in 2021, and most of those fish would be headed for BC waterways, in particular the critical Skeena and Nass river systems that are suffering low returns.

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Some of BC’s largest salmon runs navigate the waters of the Alaskan Panhandle just north of BC as they return to Canadian rivers to spawn. Speaking to the Canadian National Observer, fisheries expert and one of the authors of a new technical report for the Watershed Watch Salmon Society and SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, Greg Taylor explained that genetic testing has previously suggested that 75 per cent of the Alaskan catch may involve Canadian-bound salmon.

Meanwhile, 60 per cent of the BC’s commercial salmon fleet was shuttered in June by former federal fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan in a dramatic bid to save the Pacific salmon.

Former fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan

In addition to sockeye, tens of thousands of chinook and coho were also harvested, as well as significant but undetermined numbers of co-migrating Canadian pinks, and threatened chum and steelhead, says the study, which mined various sources of existing data to get a preliminary idea of how many Canadian salmon are being intercepted in Alaskan waters.

BC fishers, residents, and First Nations are making big sacrifices to rebuild salmon stocks without seeing a corresponding response north of the border, said Aaron Hill, executive director of Watershed Watch Salmon Society in a statement.

“The Alaskan interception fishery continues unchecked,” Hill said “It is irresponsible of both countries to continue to allow this.”

However, the current treaty expires in 2028, and historically, changes to the agreement tend to be too incremental to effect significant changes to Alaskan fisheries, he added.

The most effective way to motivate state authorities to curb the interception of Canadian salmon is for the public to challenge Alaska’s market branding of its salmon as sustainable in important markets, Taylor said.

Ironically, if Alaskan harvesters were following the state’s management regulation around threatened or depressed US salmon stocks, it would be illegal to harvest the Canadian salmon, Taylor said, but Canadian salmon are “fair” game.

Over the past five years, Alaska’s interception fisheries have harvested more Nass and Skeena salmon than Canadian fishers, Taylor said.

And in 2021 when there was no Canadian commercial catch of Skeena or Nass sockeye, the Alaskan catch likely numbered hundreds of thousands, he said.

The Pacific Salmon Treaty is failing to protect BC salmon and the province’s harvesters, said Hill, adding a fix can’t wait until the treaty is renegotiated in six years’ time.

“The governments of Canada and BC need to stand up right now and do something about this Alaskan plunder.”