UBC Study Reveals Chinook Abundance Not An Issue For SRKW’s

“UBC study reveals Chinook abundance not an issue for SRKW’s, yet ENGO’s still calling for Chinook harvest closure & no salmon fishing from March 1st to December 31st in Chinook foraging areas”

UBC researchers, Mei Sato and Andrew Trites, from UBC’s Marine Mammal Unit, along with Stephane Gauthier from the Institute of Ocean Science recently had the results of a two year study included in Canada’s largest science journal publication, Canadian Science Publishing.

Their work set out to assess the availability of prey species, mainly Chinook salmon, for southern and northern resident killer whale groups (SRKW’s & NRKW’s), using highly specialized acoustic equipment that has the ability to differentiate fish species by size.

The long held assumption was that the larger and healthier NRKW’s had access to more prey than the struggling, and declining population of SRKW’s. Because the southern residents were declining in numbers, with some members appearing emaciated and because wild Chinook salmon in key areas were also declining, the narrative developed that they were starving due to a lack of abundance of their primary food supply.

This narrative was aggressively promoted by environmental organizations who demanded a stop to fishing, closure of large tracks of marine waters and other measures because keeping Chinook threatened the long term survival of these iconic mammals. “For orcas’ sake don’t hook a Chinook this summer” was regularly quoted as a means to save these mammals. In an August 182018 article in the Star Metro Vancouver the Suzuki Foundation and Raincoast Conservation “issued a call for government to shut down all marine commercial and recreational Chinook salmon fishing in BC’s coastal waters in an effort to help BC’s critically endangered orca populations”.

This message, along with the perception that SRKW’s were starving, was hammered into the public and government’s thinking; and was reinforced with the imagery of a mother killer whale pushing its dead calf in front of it for 16 days that same summer.

Some important Chinook populations were and still are in serious trouble for a number of reasons, but today overfishing is no longer a factor.  In the same Star Metro article DFO explained that major reductions in Chinook fishing effort were already in place.

In 2019 even more severe Chinook non-retention was imposed throughout the majority of southern BC’s key fishing zones to protect upper and middle Fraser River Chinook runs. These regulations began on April 1st and extended to August 1st in some areas. Subsequent increases in area and times of Chinook non-retention were added.

These were imposed on top of the sweeping restrictions and no-go refugia that were brought in specifically to protect SRKW’s. This expansive suite of whale avoidance and protection measures affected all marine operations and fishing activities in the SRKW’s critical habitats. Unfortunately there was very little actual science to support the hypothesis that there was an absence of Chinook in these critical habitats. In fact some previous work done by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife also suggested there was no evidence connecting the summer abundance of Chinook with the current health of SRKW’s. The UBC work backs that up.

Here is the key finding:

We assessed the spatial variability of large fish as potential prey for northern and southern resident killer whales. Contrary to our hypothesis prey densities were higher in southern resident habitat than in northern resident habitat.

The 4-6 times higher density of prey available to southern residents, when compared to northern residents, suggests that they were not limited by prey in the summer.

The researchers also identified other areas that require study including noise, vessel disturbance, pollution, competition from other more populous marine mammals and lack of prey in parts of the coast outside of the study areas. The PFA would support this work.

The last point is interesting. There is a mix of opinion that the SRKW’s have been seen less in the traditional feeding areas because the new matriarch has led them to more abundant grounds on the west coast of Vancouver Island. This needs confirmation.

However the bigger question is this. This portion of southern BC, encompassing Georgia and Juan de Fuca Straits and then about halfway up the west coast of Vancouver Island, is the northern extent of their traditional range. There may be issues with prey availability in the southern regions from coastal Washington State down to central California. While hatchery production of Chinook in Puget and on the Columbia is substantial, the major California rivers have a history of erratic returns.

If there is an issue with historical southern US production of Chinook it’s beyond Canada’s control, with few options other than to pressure some US jurisdictions to step up to the plate. It already appears that southern BC and Washington State are taking the brunt of SRKW conservation actions and the associated costs.

The bigger problem is the activist environmental groups cannot be satisfied. They continually want more restrictions, more closures, more of everything with virtually no compromise, no consideration of the impacts and, at times, a selective memory as a basis for their claims. This is clearly revealed by a Times Colonist article last Friday that chastises the whale watching industry and the sport fishery for “routinely” violating the 400 meter vessel approach zone and other infractions or incidents within the voluntary compliance bubbles that include the waters from 400 meters to 1000 meters from SRKW’s. They also went after Transport Canada for lack of enforcement. The article in the Times Colonist characterized their opinion as a “scathing review” of these practices. Other additional comments accuse whale watchers and recreational boaters of “breaking the trust” by going against the agreement that allowed whale watchers to approach non SRKW’s more closely and for allowing anglers to retain some fishing opportunities.

The basis for this new assault stems from a report prepared by Straitwatch that chronicled infractions and incursions between 2018 and 2020. Interestingly the report does not read like a scathing review. In fact it concludes that commercial whale watchers have reduced their incursions inside the 400 meter avoidance zone by 90% between 2018 an 2020, while personal motorized vessels, which included anglers, have reduced by 71%. Furthermore the occurrence of vessels within 1000 meters of SRKW’s has dropped by 42%. For a new suite of regulations, often complex and confusing, the PFA believes this is a success story that speaks to the overall effort of commercial whale watchers, pleasure boaters and anglers to abide by the rules to save these endangered whales. Not something that should be vilified and condemned.

The ENGO’s didn’t stop at that. They indicated that there was barely any enforcement. In an article in the same newspaper the next day Fisheries and Oceans listed the number of warning issued in 2020 (150+), the number of charges laid (5 with more pending) and the fines levied, $24,000. Given the number of days that SRKW’s were in Georgia and Juan de Fuca Strait in 2020 the PFA considers this to be an acceptable level of enforcement, although more is never a bad thing.

It must be understood that the majority of Straitwatch’s monitoring time on the water was spent on the US side of the border because that is where the whales spend a great deal of time feeding. So Canadian boating infractions are lumped in with similar incidents on the US side presenting a confusing picture.  

The DFO enforcement response was not the only reaction. The Pacific Whale Watchers had their own take on the Times Colonist article and the ENGO press release calling the information “misleading”.

This is not news to the PFA or the sport fishery. In recent years ENGO’s have been called out for using misleading and unsupported catch and release mortality information which suggest much higher mortality levels than the internationally agreed upon 20% rate. Ironically there is a UBC/ Sport Fishing Institute study that just completed its third year. This study radio tagged angler caught Chinook salmon before release. The radio tags are recorded as Chinook pass over arrays on the way to the spawning rivers. This data will go a long way to answer catch and release mortality questions, including those that arise from immediate predator inflicted mortality after release. It would be sensible for these groups to wait for science based information to be made public, rather than releasing speculative reports to support what looks a lot like an anti-angling agenda. The PFA has also responded to a number of other questionable public comments directed at recreational fisheries in the last 12-18 months that lack credibility by misinterpreting the facts.

If SRKW’s are to survive, which will require all parties to row the boat in the same direction, it’s time for the environmental organizations to park their anti-everything agenda and get on board. To date that’s seems like wishful thinking.

For example these groups have opposed everything that technically and logically could sustain and improve not just southern resident killer whales but Chinook salmon. These include:

Opposition to mark selective fisheries where anglers retain identifiable fin clipped hatchery produced salmon and release all wild salmon, in areas and at times where the proportion of hatchery salmon exceed 50% of the total abundance.

Opposition to fin clipping all existing hatchery produced salmon. This is not a request for more hatcheries.  It does allow for proper identification of hatchery from wild, allows modest recreational fisheries to occur, even allows for terminal 1st Nations fisheries where they are currently restricted, and for separating wild from hatchery salmon to protect the genetic integrity of specific runs. Currently unmarked hatchery salmon are masquerading as wild fish.

Opposition to hatcheries. It might be instructive to ask these groups what would happen if they actually got their way. For example what would happen to SRKW’s if the hatcheries, which account for over 80% of salmon and trout production on the massively dammed Columbia River, suddenly shut down. Similar comparisons can be made for hatchery production from the heavily populated regions of the Georgia Basin, where sustaining sufficient levels of natural salmon production will be extremely difficult in the face of human expansion.

Opposition to data based DFO vetted recreation fishing plans in areas where there is marginal to no impact on Upper and Middle Fraser River Chinooks.

Opposition to the Sooke Chinook Program which has local government, local community and 1st Nations support. This long term $300,000 self funded, volunteer program is intended to provide more Chinook for SRKW’s to eat while they are in Juan de Fuca Strait. ENGO’s oppose it, even though the donor stock used for the program is the same donor stock that rebuilt the nearby Sooke River.

In their recent press release these groups are once again calling for no marine Chinook fishing, and no salmon angling in Chinook foraging areas from March 1st to December 1st.

The PFA is rapidly coming to the conclusion that the ENGO’s, who regularly link their negative messaging to “fund raising buttons”, have lost their way and are becoming an impediment, not a solution, to salmon and perhaps even whale recovery. Continuing this “my way or the highway” scorched earth policy towards marine public salmon fishing, even where data supports these activities, could have profound negative consequences for the resource. Anglers are still one of, if not, the largest single cohort of volunteers who do the grunt work in streams, while digging into their pocket books to ensure salmon continue to exist in the heavily populated coastal regions. Unfortunately they are becoming the first casualties of the ENGO’s “no to everything culture”.  This must stop. The PFA will respond to all cases of misleading commentary targeting angler access quickly and factually. Contact the PFA at ……if you encounter any media reports or stories that fit this definition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *