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'Stop the bleeding': B.C. groups call on Alaska to halt interception of Canadian salmon

Researchers initially thought Alaskan salmon interceptions were concentrated to fish returning to the Skeena and Nass rivers. New data suggests the problem is more widespread.
Salmon in the Chehalis River, a tributary of the Fraser River.

A coalition of environmental groups is calling on Alaska to halt the interception of hundreds of thousands of B.C.-bound salmon before they return home to spawn. 

In a letter addressed to Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, four salmon conservation groups presented data indicating that in 2021 more than 650,000 Canadian-origin sockeye salmon were caught in the waters of southeast Alaska. That is six times the 110,000 sockeye B.C. commercial fishers caught last year.

“We’re just talking about the fish we know that are getting killed up there,” said Greg Taylor, a longtime consultant with commercial and First Nations fisheries.

B.C. salmon populations have plummeted to record lows in recent years. In response, the federal government closed 60 per cent of B.C.’s commercial salmon harvest in June 2021 and announced a fishing licence buy-back program under its $647-million Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative.

The result for B.C., says Taylor: “It makes us a spawning ground for Alaska.”

The fish expert was one of three authors on a recent report detailing the impact Alaskan fishers are having on returning B.C. fish. Released in January under commission from the Watershed Watch Salmon Society and SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, the research found Alaskan fishers intercepted over half a million salmon on their way home to B.C.'s Skeena and Nass rivers, two of the province's most important spawning grounds after the Fraser River.

But since then Taylor says his team has dug deeper into the numbers. The problem, he says, is much more widespread than initially thought. 

Canadian salmon caught in Alaska are now thought to have origins in river systems across the coasts of Vancouver Island and the inlets of B.C.’s mainland. 

The biggest impacts, says Taylor, are felt anywhere north of the City of Nanaimo. An unknown portion of returning Fraser River sockeye are also thought to be taken in Alaska waters.  

“It’s not just in the North and the Central coasts. If you live anywhere in this province, there are fish that are getting caught in Alaska,” he said. 

It's also not just sockeye at risk. Alaska provides “little or no information” on how many B.C.-origin chum, pink, steelhead and coho salmon are caught in southeast Alaska every year, but in their letter to the governor, the conservation groups state it is “likely in the millions.”

“They call it a ‘pink fishery.’ That's why they want to be in that area. But we know that the real prize is the sockeye,” said Stu Barnes, operations manager of the Skeena Fisheries Commission (SFC). “We could have survived for four years off of what they got this [last] year.”

The SFC coordinates scientific research and fish stock conservation for the Gitxsan, Wet’suwet’en and the Gitanyow First Nations — together representing over 20,000 people who are among the most heavily dependent on salmon in the world.

“We have communities that aren't meeting their food fish needs for going on 10, 15, 20 years,” said Barnes. “So any kind of extra impact on our stocks right now is just making the access that much harder.”

Data shared with Glacier Media show southeast Alaskan fisheries took 70 per cent of sockeye stocks for the Nisga’a Nation last year; 64 per cent of chinook in watersheds around Bella Bella and Bella Coola; and 44 per cent of chinook stocks along a stretch of coast that includes the Quinsam area of Campbell River. 

Those numbers represent a small slice of the fishers hit by the combined effects of B.C. fishery closures and Alaskan interceptions.

Following the release of the report on southeast Alaska salmon catches in January, First Nations across the province finally had data to back up what many had suspected all along. 

“It created a rallying point for more than just the Skeena First Nations,” said Barnes.

In January, Tŝilhqot’in Nation tribal chair Joe Alphonse said the First Nation was “outraged” over the interceptions, especially at a time when the nation has made “huge sacrifices” to conserve salmon. 

Like many First Nations working to recover salmon stocks, the Tŝilhqot’in Nation has implemented closures and denied its citizens their Aboriginal right to fish, said Alphonse. 

It's time, said Alphonse, to review how the Pacific Salmon Treaty is structured, and where First Nations sit at the international table.  

Since 1985, the Canada-U.S. Pacific Salmon Treaty has been in place to settle international imbalances in fisheries, prevent overfishing, and ensure both countries receive equal benefits from healthy salmon populations. Over the last three decades, new agreements have been reached every 10 years. But the last agreement was signed in 2019 and the Pacific Salmon Treaty isn’t up for renewal until 2028.

Despite frustration on the B.C. side, both Barnes and Taylor say there has been little response from the Canadian government or those working on the Pacific Salmon Treaty.

“It’s just not working for us under Canada's banner,” Barnes told Glacier Media. “At the domestic table we can say, ‘We have rights.’ At the international table, we say ‘we have rights' and they shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Good for you. How much fish are we getting?’”

On Tuesday, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard spokesperson Kevin Lemkay said the department is aware of the January report and is working with Global Affairs Canada “to address these concerns.”

Glacier Media also reached out to the office of Alaska Gov. Dunleavy, but he was not immediately available to comment. 

Taylor said the coalition received “a neutral response” from Dunleavy’s office, saying it had received the letter. In it, the four conservation groups — Watershed Watch Salmon Society, SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, Raincoast Conservation Foundation and Coastal Rivers Conservancy — asked to sit down with the governor to work out a “common sense” solution for all sides. 

That means closing District 104 to net fishing — fishing grounds that make up an overwhelming percentage of intercepted B.C-bound salmon. Other suggested measures include reducing harvest rates in the area to avoid overfishing of Canadian-origin stocks and implementing independent catch reporting for target and non-target species. 

The group is also calling for fishers to release non-target fish, or bycatch, back into the water before they die, something already required in B.C.

But while Taylor says scientists and fisheries experts have the genetic tools to identify where and how big the problem is, anything less than the closure of District 104 would be “kicking the can down the road.”

“Really we need to close that offending fishery and move them elsewhere,” he said.

Taylor added he’s optimistic the groups will get an honest conversation with the governor, especially in a state that sells its salmon catch based on an image of sustainability.

“It does not look good what they’re doing now,” he said. “It just needs some common sense. We cannot protect and rebuild our salmon population if they’re getting killed. 

“The first thing you need to do is stop the bleeding.”