B.C. environmental groups and the Tŝilhqot’in First Nation are expressing alarm and outrage in the wake of a report suggesting B.C. salmon populations may be hurt by fishing in Alaskan waters.
Alaskan authorities, however, are dismissing those allegations, calling the report a “targeted attack” against a sustainable fishery compliant with international agreements.
The report was commissioned by salmon advocacy groups Watershed Watch Salmon Society and SkeenaWild Conservation Trust.
It found that with salmon fisheries in B.C. curtailed in recent years due to low fish numbers, one Alaskan fishery off the panhandle often has the largest commercial catch of B.C. salmon.
“There is growing concern … Alaskan catch continues to have an impact on Canadian salmon and steelhead populations,” the report’s abstract states.
“Given the current depressed status of many wild populations across B.C., and in the context of changing marine and freshwater environments due to various threats such as land use, forestry practices, and climate change, further examination of [Alaskan fishing] impacts on B.C. salmon appears warranted.”
Pacific salmon spend parts of their lives in ocean water and some — like Skeena River sockeye on B.C.’s North Coast — cross international maritime boundaries between Canada and the U.S. and might be caught by either country’s fishing fleets.
First Nation expresses frustration
Greg Taylor, fisheries advisor for Watershed Watch Salmon Society, says the continued Alaskan harvesting of B.C. salmon is wrong when fisheries in the province are closed to rebuild stocks.
“The proportion taken by Alaska continues to grow,” Taylor said. “We really need every fish that we can to get back to our streams now because every fish now is precious … it could be the difference between being able to recover these populations.”
The Tŝilhqot’in Nation, in a statement, also highlighted “outrage” over the report’s findings.
“Our Nation has made huge sacrifices to conserve salmon over the years, including protecting the headwaters in our title lands where these salmon spawn, and having the last remaining relatively healthy Fraser River sockeye run,” Nits’ilʔin (Chief) Joe Alphonse, Tribal Chair of the Tŝilhqot’in National Government said in the statement.
“Our Nation has implemented closures and denied our citizens their Aboriginal right to fish, impacting our traditional way of life, our economy and the mental and physical health of our peoples. We made these sacrifices because there were so few fish remaining in 2019 and 2020, only to learn that the drastic decline in returns was the result of major overfishing in Alaskan waters.”
The Tŝilhqot’in Nation said it wants an independent review of the Pacific Salmon Treaty — which sets rules for salmon fishing between Canada and the U.S. — with Tŝilhqot’in representatives’ participation. The statement also calls for a renegotiation and new measures within the treaty.
Alaska ‘disappointed’ by report
Alaskan authorities are calling the report’s findings biased and unfair.
In a statement, the state’s Department of Fish and Game said that Alaska continues to uphold the salmon treaty and B.C. fisheries also catch U.S.-bound fish swimming in Canadian waters.
“I was disappointed by what I consider to be a targeted attack on Southeast Alaska salmon fisheries by these special interest groups,” Department Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said in the statement.
“Moreover, I find the timing of the release of this report to be suspect as it coincides with ongoing Pacific Salmon Treaty meetings. The summary comments were subjective and one-sided and appear to be designed to derail Pacific Salmon Treaty talks.”
Claire Teichman, press secretary for federal fisheries minister Joyce Murray said fisheries officials have received the report and are reviewing it.
“Canada and the United States meet regularly and report to each other on fishery harvests, research, management and conservation objectives to facilitate the implementation of the Pacific Salmon Treaty,” Teichman wrote in an email.
She also highlighted $647 million in federal spending to revitalize Pacific salmon populations, which she called the largest investment Canada has ever made in salmon.