The Department of Fisheries & Oceans (DFO) needs to acknowledge the shift in both social and economic importance of Skeena steelhead and it’s associated sportfishing tourism industry. DFO needs to come to terms with the reality that commercial fishing impacts on steelhead are no longer tolerable on so many levels; biological, biodiversity, socially unacceptable, and economically unsound.
Until DFO provides fishery management that reflects the economic and societal shift that has occurred, steelhead and the associated sportfishing tourism industry will be unfairly marginalized.
Avoidance: Do 6 Consecutive Day, 16 Hours a day Seine Openings work to avoid non-target fish?
The Report of the Skeena Independant Science Review Panel (ISRP,2008) stated clearly that the best selective fishing technique available to fishery managers was AVOIDANCE of fish encountering any type of net in the first place. However, the current fishery management regime directs most of the industrial scale fishing to occur in the worst possible area at the worst possible time for steelhead. The mouth of the Skeena River is where Steelhead and Salmon are funnelled into shallow narrow passages leading into the mainstream river and by allowing 250+ non-selective gillnetters to crowd into this area shows little regard for steelhead avoidance or conservation on behalf of DFO.
Moreover, how does sanctioning 6 day per week, 16 hours per day, seine fishery openings correspond with the Panel’s advice about avoidance? Throw in little to no enforcement presence by DFO’s Conservation & Protection division to enforce selective fishing measures and you basically have an unregulated free-for-all on the water.
Dealing With the Gillnetters
Gill nets are the predominant form of fishing gear used in areas of high incidental by-catch. These nets are indiscriminate killing machines causing short term mortality rates of between 66 and 80%+ for steelhead in addition to delayed mortalities and reduced spawning success. This gear type is not and never can be selective as stated by DFO.
It is past time that these outdated capture techniques are phased out. Despite all the DFO’s dressing up of gillnets with various lengths, set times, mesh sizes, etc there will never be any way for these net to be truly selective in practise. With more and more depressed salmon stocks in need of careful management and the economic and social values associated with steelhead, the time has come to eliminate the gillnet as a acceptable fish capture technique.
It appears obvious DFO is reluctant to address this issue directly and prefers to allow market driven forces to dictate the fate of commercial fishing enterprises. The DFO approach is to stand on the sidelines and watch a barely viable fleet, consisting of aging operators who seem more interested in pursuing the lifestyle than making a living, slowly die an ignominious death. Even in apparently ‘good years’ such as 2011, with 18 gillnet days allowed, the fleet average for net income is only around $8000.00 per boat.
It is time for DFO to initiate a policy plan to gradually eliminate gillnetting. DFO should also stop issuing license to fishers who dont fish or have not fished for several years. The other more active fishers should be offered a license buy back program or some form of ‘exit strategy’ that allows them to leave the fishery.
Other easily implemented solutions to the steelhead interception problem could include closing the rivermouth area to commercial fishing. The River-Gap-Slough area is historically the area of highest steelhead impact and could easily be closed or designated a Marine Conservation Area. (Red area in image).
Shift The Catch:
The Skeena fishery is a classic mixed stock fishery where a dominant enhanced fish stock is targetted to the detriment of other smaller weaker fish stocks. Traditionally, the bulk of the enhanced sockeye commercial catch occurred in the marine environment with the expected negative impacts on co-migrating fish stocks. However, over the last few years an increasing portion of the total catch has been shifted inland to the Babine Lake area. Here, the Lake Babine First Nation catches fish at both the Babine River fisheries weir and in the lake itself. At these locations the fishery could be described as the most ‘selective’ in the watershed.
The positive aspect of this catch shift is less percentage of the catch is available to less selective fishing techniques, such as gillnetting. Ideally, to address the mixed stock fishery and steelhead bycatch impacts, the bulk of the commercial catch of enhanced sockeye should be caught at ths terminal location. More weak stock and bycatch benefits could be achieved by moving the marine fishery out of the actual rivermouth area, phasing out non-selective fishing techniques, and facilitating a tightly regulated and closely monitored seine fishery.
The question becomes does the Department of Fisheries & Oceans have the foresight and leadership skills necessary for this shift? The answer at present is obviously a resounding ‘no’. But, with encouragement from groups like ours and possibly the law Courts, we could shape the circumstances required for DFO to enable the shift to occur.