RE: Rebuttal to David Mills Posts on Recreational Fishing Release Mortalities

The Public Fishery Alliance has serious issues with the comments made by David Mills in a post in Watershed Watch, and a subsequent post on the Public Fishery Alliance Facebook page.

Mills cites a Pacific Salmon Commission table that shows 2021 Chinook retained catch, released Chinook and incidental mortalities for Canadian Chinook fisheries across northern BC, the central BC coast, the west coast of Vancouver Island, Johnstone Strait, Georgia and Juan de Fuca Straits. The table includes all fishing sectors but our concern relates only to his interpretation of the recreational fisheries catch and incidental mortality data.

Mills claims that the data shows recreational fisheries are killing 1 Chinook for every Chinook kept by anglers. This is incorrect on two counts.

First, this is not how incidental mortalities are calculated. Incidental mortalities are the percentage of those fish that are released and subsequently die relative to the total number of releases in a fishery. Higher incidental mortalities are obviously not desirable and all fisheries, recreational, commercial and First Nations should be striving to reduce that number to in order to maintain sustainable fisheries.

Second, the 1 to 1 ratio of incidental mortalities, even by his measure, is incorrect. The actual ratio according to the data in the Pacific Salmon Commission table is 2 Chinook kept for every 1 Chinook killed during release. This is a moot point because it is not the way to calculate the correct incidental mortality rate that would then be applied to the fishery. If that were the standard every accepted and conservation-based fishery where fish releases are the common practice, would not be permitted to exist. However, Mills goes further by suggesting the recreational fishery performance is the worst on the Pacific coast. The fact is no fisheries are immune from some mortality. The goal is to reduce mortalities and allow fisheries to proceed when there is an acceptable level of mortality.

The Pacific Salmon Commission has adopted a 20% incidental mortality rate for recreational caught Chinook. This number applied to Chinook releases and, combined with actual catch, is used to arrive at a total mortality for a fishery. This mortality rate for recreational caught salmon also involved looking at work done on Canada’s west coast. Initially it was thought that 30% would be the correct number to use at the Salmon Commission. However, work done by DFO’s Terry Gjernes was reviewed by initially sceptical US scientists, who then corroborated that the 30% number was too high.

In the 1980’s Terry Gjernes, from DFO’s Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, conducted extensive recreational fishery hooking mortality studies on the BC coast over multiple years. He used regular and professional anglers who caught Chinook and Coho using all types of recreational fishing gear. These fish were caught and data was recorded for species, sex, fish condition, hooking wounds and hooking locations etc. They were then kept onboard in a holding tank before transport to sea pens at the biological station, where they were observed over a set period of time before being released. Gjernes’ work was peer reviewed. Depending on fish size Chinook incidental mortality ranged from 15 to 20%, with the highest mortality occurring with smaller fish. Coho ranged from 10-15%. His work led to the adoption of barbless hook regulations because the difference between barbed and non-barbed hook induced mortality was significant.

However, there is still a constant drumbeat, from certain groups opposed to recreational salmon fishing, that mortality rates are excessive with some claiming rates as high as 40%, 50% or even higher, even after being publicly called out. Once again Mills confirms this perception in his post “Data shows unacceptable mortality for catch and release”. He goes on to write “Today we saw anglers scratching their heads at the size, struggling with species identification while fish lay on the (boat) deck. These salmon will never make it to the rivers”. These comments are nothing more than unscientific opinion and, completely at odds with the comprehensive release mortality studies done by Gjernes which, as noted above, included participation from anglers with a range of skills. It is quite possible that the salmon handled in this study were subjected to even more stress than salmon during the normal fishing release process.

Gjernes’ work has also come under criticism because it’s old. The issue should not be study age but study accuracy based on the research criteria, and the number of fish examined. One critical comparative factor is that those studies took place when barbed hooks were legal, which as the study confirms leads to an over-estimation bias, based on the size of hook used, the size of the fish caught and the differential mortality rates between barbed and barbless.  New multi-year studies are underway. This research should put to rest this polarizing, time wasting argument that may be based as much on perceptions and agendas as fact. 

It is in the best interests of salmon that recreational anglers and groups who have issues with recreational fishing, often it appears based on questionable information, find common ground. The recreational fishing community has a long history of volunteerism and willingly digging into their own pockets to support countless worthwhile salmon projects in BC. Our goal is salmon recovery and sustainable fisheries, not fruitless conflict.

Approved for Release by the Public Fishery Alliance Board of Directors

Link to original David Mills post available here.

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