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Will Sea to Sky anglers be able to catch a chinook in Howe Sound this summer?

Public fishery advocates await DFO regulations for this year; the government agency says it is still consulting on this year's plan.
They have been listened to, but have they been heard? That is the question Sea to Sky anglers are asking themselves as they await for Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to announce public fishery regulations for the upcoming season.

Restrictions on chinook catches have been increasing year-over-year as concern over Fraser River chinook stocks has grown.

Last summer, there was no fishing for chinook allowed in the Vancouver area and Howe Sound from April to September.

"Our concerns are about a lack of any kind of opportunity for chinook salmon April 1 to Sept. 1 in Howe Sound," said angler and Sea to Sky Sport Fish Advisory Committee member Dave Brown.

"We would like to see an opportunity for a marked selective fishery for hatchery chinook."

With mark selective fisheries, the hatchery salmon has its adipose fin removed, signalling that anglers can retain the fish under certain circumstances.

This is a proposal promoted by the Sport Fish Advisory Board and that has garnered support from politicians of various stripes.

Since last fishing season, Brown says there has been much more of a willingness by authorities to meet — virtually — with sport fishers to hear their concerns.

Local anglers met in February with Jenn Phillips, the senior policy advisor for the Pacific Region to Office of the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and director of operations Neil MacIsaac.

"It was a very good opportunity for us," Brown said, expressing his gratitude at getting the meeting.

Brown added that Sea to Sky MP Patrick Weiler and Terry Beech, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, have also been responsive and engaged with recreational anglers on the topic.

"But at the end of the day, I am still hearing that if there is one fish that could be caught, we have to keep you out," Brown said. "That isn't fair. We are the user group with the lowest impact.... In the end, this opening is not going to result in any kind of recovery or not recovery of the stocks of concern. We are being used as a poster of 'something is being done,' when it is not actually being done."

Almost all anglers agree there is an issue with Fraser River chinook, but Brown and others, including the Sport Fishing Institute, argue that fishing can occur without those fish being caught.

He argues less than 1% of fish Howe Sound and Vancouver anglers encounter are of the stocks of concern.

"Fishing pressure and harvest is not the driving force behind the decline in abundance, rather it is the productive capacity of both freshwater and marine environments," wrote the Sport Fishing Institute of BC in an open letter published after last year's restrictions were announced.  "A comprehensive recovery program that also addresses habitat, in-river environmental issues, enhancement work, illegal fishing practices and known impacts of predators is required. In fact, all sectors with an interest in salmon agree that there are serious and urgent problems for Fraser River stocks of concern that must be addressed, that fisheries management alone is not a solution but a band-aid on a bullet hole, and must be combined with solutions that address the root cause of the problem."

Getting out on the water and catching chinook this summer would have substantial socio-economic benefits, say anglers.

Jason Assonitis, the owner of Bon Chovy Fishing Charters said even though the proposal to catch one chinook isn't much, it means a lot.

"Just having some sort of opportunity, that has an extremely low impact on stocks of concern but massive spinoffs to communities like Bowen Island, Gibsons, Gabriola Island — all these little islands that are smaller communities, but local tourism-driven, these are big impacts."

Assonitis says that the longer people are kept from fishing for chinook, the less of a connection they have with salmon.

"From a family perspective, continuing the traditions that have gone on for years and years and years. The way this is going, the public fishery is going the way of the dodo."

Assonitis said that those in the recreational fishery are some of the most concerned with its health.

"This is not about catching the last fish. It is in no one's interest, specifically in the public fishery, to catch the last fish. We want to be in a scenario that the community is connected with salmon.... A massive influence on keeping people connected with a resource is with a recreational fishery and that is where people learn to respect the resource — to take care of it."

Anglers are also big contributors to fish conservation groups, he added.

"We are going down a pretty slippery slope. At the end of the day, if people don't care about salmon they are going to keep on getting impacted."

Assonitis said he has no idea whether he should hire staff for the season for his charter business, or "lock the doors" and that is a hard place to be after a year of COVID-19 restrictions.

"It is a $1.2 billion industry in British Columbia. There's 9,000 jobs. I am not in the industry, but the benefit of getting out and enjoying time with my family, my kids and my friends, that has all been lost to a large degree in our area, Brown said. "We are encouraged. We really like what we have seen this year, but... I am still feeling like we could be in the same situation this year. The same decision being made."

Both men acknowledged some groups would prefer there be zero sport fishing but said there can be a balance.

The men say there is a lot that gets contributed through having anglers on the water.

 "Through collecting data. Through only fishing for a hatchery fish and when you catch that hatchery fish, if you retain it, turning in the head — a huge scientific benefit," Brown said.

 Squamish Nation

For its part, Squamish Nation spokesperson Syetáxtn (Chris Lewis) told The Squamish Chief in an email that the Nation supports anything that helps the fish.

 "Squamish Nation continues to witness the alarming decline of Kwu7s (chinook salmon) stocks in our territory," said Syetáxtn. "Kwu7s and other sts'ukwi7 (salmon) are an integral part of Squamish life and culture, and we support any project or policy that aims to reverse the declining trend of Kwu7s in our waters."


A DFO spokesperson told The Chief in an email that the organization is currently seeking input from First Nations and stakeholders "on proposed management actions or effective alternatives that could provide fishing opportunity while achieving the necessary conservation requirements for Fraser River chinook stocks."

The DFO reiterated what everyone agrees on, which is that chinook populations in the Fraser River are in the midst of a steep decline, and are being highly impacted by low returns to their spawning grounds, reduced survival in both freshwater and marine lifecycle phases resulting in reduced reproduction success, habitat pressures and a changing climate.

Most Fraser River chinook have been classified as at risk by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

"Fraser River chinook, in particular, have experienced a dramatic decline in recent years. This species is of significant cultural importance to First Nations, of economic importance to coastal fishing communities, and are key to the survival of southern resident killer whales," the DFO spokesperson said.

Science and data?

Decisions on fishery management measures are informed by feedback from consultations, the DFO said, and are announced through the Department's Fishery Notice system.

Brown and Assonitis argue that science has taken a backseat to politics when it comes to the DFO restricting the chinook catch in Howe Sound and other south coast waters.

"There is one sample in 39 years of a stock of concern in the area," Brown said.

"We as a group and the Sport Fishery Advisory Board and anglers have worked incredibly hard to come up with a proposal that has virtually 99.95% a chance of not catching a chinook salmon."

The DFO says it uses coded wire tag (CWT) and DNA data collected from catch samples as the primary information to assess potential impacts of the proposed opening on chinook stocks.

"Using CWT data from 1975 to 2019 and DNA data from 2014 to 2019, the main stocks contributing to a fishery in Howe Sound include rearing East Coast Vancouver Island, North East Vancouver Island, Lower Fraser River, U.S. stocks, and migrating summer-run chinook to local rivers, migrating Fraser stream-type chinook, and shelf-resident fall chinook," the DFO spokesperson told The Chief.

"These data indicate Fraser stocks of concern are encountered in the proposed fishing area in Howe Sound, though likely in small proportions relative to other stocks in the area.

"Conservation is our first priority in management of the salmon fishery — this includes all stocks potentially impacted by a fishery — followed by First Nations food, social and ceremonial fisheries. These are difficult decisions that impact a wide range of communities. It is important that we make decisions that will ultimately lead to improved salmon populations, so that we have healthy and abundant salmon runs in the future that will support Indigenous, commercial and recreational fisheries."

  Marked selective fishery

A number of recreational fishery proposals incorporate marked selective fisheries for areas around southern B.C.

According to the DFO spokesperson, the department is currently consulting on whether to permit any of these proposals to proceed on a pilot basis.

An evaluation of proposals has been circulated to First Nations and stakeholders for further comment this month before decisions are made, the spokesperson added.

The DFO says it is currently reviewing information on whether to expand the use of fishery regulations that permit retention of hatchery-origin marked chinook (Mark Selective Fisheries) and/or mass-marking of hatchery chinook production.

The DFO identified several issues that need to be considered, the spokesperson told the Chief.

These issues include:

 *Ensuring stock assessment information is not compromised: Canada currently marks (i.e. by removing the adipose fin) hatchery chinook that carry Coded Wire Tags to support stock assessments for chinook indicator populations. Mass-marking of all hatchery fish would require Canada to significantly adapt fishery monitoring and stock assessment programs to maintain information on wild chinook and support Pacific Salmon Treaty obligations.

*Cost: Marking significant numbers of hatchery-origin chinook would incur substantial costs and may be logistically challenging in some areas.

*Effects on ecosystems: producing additional hatchery-origin chinook to support fisheries must be carefully planned to manage ecosystem effects (carrying capacity of natural systems to support salmon); control potential competitive interactions between hatchery and wild salmon; ensure that the genetic diversity of wild origin salmon is maintained; and, ensure MSF fisheries do not adversely impact wild unmarked stocks of conservation concern.

There would still be many times and areas where the proportion of marked fish encounters would likely remain too low to support MSF without incurring substantial release mortality on unmarked fish.

The Department is currently conducting a three-year pilot project to mark Conuma Hatchery chinook in conjunction with a project exploring the application of genetic tools (parentage-based tagging (PBT)) of all hatchery-origin chinook broodstock, which are a collection of fish that are artificially mated.

"The goal is to determine whether PBT, combined with enhanced catch monitoring and genetic stock identification sampling, will provide the assessment information currently derived from the Coded Wire Tag (CWT) Indicator stock program with equal or greater accuracy and precision, and determine whether this approach mitigates the potential impacts of MSF."