By Jay Ritchlin, Director General, Western Canada
Pacific salmon face many challenges. Restoring Pacific salmon abundance, and in turn recreating vibrant and profitable fisheries across the province, will require action on a number of fronts. Removing disease and parasite threats from fish farms, restoring freshwater habitat, reducing fishing on threatened stocks and even mitigating and reducing the impacts of climate change are all necessary steps.
It's because of this range of challenges that we must act on a specific issue when an opportunity emerges. The opportunity before us now is addressing the issue of bycatch in salmon fisheries, and the pressures that lead to its mishandling, which have been highlighted in recent media.
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Some salmon seine fishermen targeting pink salmon appear to be breaking the law by mishandling other salmon species incidentally caught in the fishery, greatly reducing their chances of survival. These "bycatch" species include chum and sockeye salmon, some of which come from stocks at risk. Although this fishery is relatively "clean", with approximately two per cent of all fish caught being non-target salmon, it does catch a large volume of salmon (about eight million so far this year), and therefore can still have a large impact. So bycatch species need to be returned to the water with maximum chance of survival. If this does not happen, the impact of the fishery on weaker species is much more negative than it has to be.
Part of the issue in this case is the lack of effective monitoring and enforcement. Although rules are in place, there is no way to confirm they are being followed. The opportunity we have now is to increase independent verification of catch and fishing practices across the salmon fleet.
The ideal goal would be to reach 100 per cent observer coverage. This would require each commercial salmon boat, while fishing, to have some form of independent observation ensuring that the rules of the fishery are being followed. This could include having an independent person on the vessel trained to spot violations or cameras that record video and GPS information while the vessel is fishing and are available for independent review on shore.
At minimum, we need to get to a place where the level of independent monitoring and verification ensures compliance with the rules. Some fisheries may require less than 100 per cent observer coverage, but the point is to put monitoring and enforcement at a level that ensures we are meeting conservation objectives. A regular and meaningful enforcement presence from Fisheries and Oceans Canada would also help.
This is not a new idea. Currently, many other Pacific fisheries require complete observer coverage, making them some of the better-managed fisheries in the world. That means the technology and best practices already exist.
In addition to monitoring and enforcement issues, there are pressures in salmon fisheries that can lead to poor practices. The current nature of salmon openings means fishermen have to race to catch as many fish as they can before the fishery is closed — sometimes in a few days, sometimes in a matter of hours. To make the money needed to keep the boat running and the crew paid, skippers have to fish hard and fast. This can lead to environmental and safety problems from taking shortcuts or simple fatigue.
In some other fisheries where monitoring and enforcement improvements were made, bigger changes to how fish were allocated, including quota fisheries with long-term allocations, were also introduced to help make the transition feasible and economic for the fishermen. Adding certainty and reducing the need to rush while fishing are key benefits. Similar allocation changes may also help support improved monitoring in salmon fisheries.
Creating and fine-tuning monitoring, enforcement and allocation that will work with the unique challenges of salmon require input from the fisheries themselves. We know from conversations that we've had with many fishery participants, from small boat fishermen to the largest companies, that there are many fishermen and fishing companies that want to see these kinds of improvements. Their participation will greatly improve compliance to the rules and minimize unintended consequences. In turn, better protection and recovery of salmon will ensure more sustainable and productive fisheries in the future; a win for the salmon, the industries and the communities that depend on them.