The Issue

Commercial Salmon Fishery


The Skeena River is home to the second largest run of sockeye salmon in British Columbia. These valuable fish and other species such as chinook and coho have been targeted by the commercial fleet since 1876. In 1970, the Babine Lake artificial rearing channels began producing enhanced runs of sockeye specifically for the commercial fleet. This in turn has intensified the large non selective mixed stock fishery in the Skeena approach waters causing devastating impacts on many Skeena steelhead and salmon populations. In 1997, a coast wide coho collapse forced the federal Fisheries Minister to implement closures and restrictions to save these fish which also resulted in a drastic reduction in the by-catch of Skeena steelhead. The past few years have seen some of these Skeena coho stocks rebuild, although some skeena coho stocks still struggle with an uncertain future.

In 2006 a drastic increase in the number of commercial fishing openings combined with the timing of these openings (late July through August) intercepted large numbers of a weak return of summer steelhead (particularly the early component of the run). This was in contrast to the past decade and caused alarm in the sport fishing community and among provincial fisheries scientists. In addition, Upriver first nations were unable to harvest their food fish and were denied access to their constitutional right. 2006 saw 44 out of 71 calendar days fished by the commercial fleet at the mouth on the Skeena, with 11 days fished consecutively during the peak migration of steelhead. This kind of pressure was not even experienced at the height of commercial fishing in the early to mid 1990’s. In addition to this the Department of Fisheries & Oceans (DFO) relaxed its restrictions on some of its “selective” fishing measures and fished for nearly a month past its traditional fishing period.

Sadly even all this extra effort has not made the commercial fishery profitable. Due to various factors (fish prices ,token management closures and other factors) the average commercial gill netter’s anual catch is only valued at $ 12,000. Even if every single returning Skeena salmon had been harvested, commercial fishermen would still not be able to make a living without Employment Insurance subsidies. It would appear the only individuals making any profit are the few monopolistic fleet and cannery owners.

Many Skeena River first nations people are having extreme difficulty in harvesting their constitutionally guaranteed food and ceremonial fish. Several of their non enhanced sockeye runs have reached dangerously low levels. This fact is possibly the best indicator of the failure of the DFO’S management practices. The NCSA supports this right and hopes to work with first nations to ensure management actions permit them to do so in the furture.

Current Situation

Unfortunately, we are seeing a return by the DFO to maximize the harvest for the commercial fleet at the expense of Skeena steelhead and weak stocks of salmon.

The 2007 Integrated Fisheries Management Plan (IFMP) allows a return to the retention and targeting of Skeena Coho salmon. This means that they are no longer a stock of concern. As a result DFO will allow a further relaxation of its “selective” fishing measures and restrictions of fishing during the heart of the steelhead migration (August). Furthermore, there is a proposed pink salmon fishery for the mouth of the Skeena which will also occur during the peak steelhead migration.

Skeena Management Model

The current Skeena Management Model was developed by North Coast DFO scientists and their provincial counterparts prior to 1993. Since 1993 it has undergone many changes to allow for “reductions” in by-catch due to the implementation of so called “selective” fishing methods. These “selective” fishing methods are input into the model to come up with a percentage of the steelhead run being killed by the net fishery.

The issue with the model is that DFO management has been inputting unrealistically high compliance rates for selective fishing by the commercial fleet. In addition, the DFO uses unrealistic steelhead mortality rates which are only half of what has been documented by scientific studies and documented in technical reports. Therefore the associated steelhead mortality numbers inflicted by the commercial fleet are likely unrealistic and certainly below the true devestating and unsustainable impact.

Other Threats

Although the greatest threat to Skeena steelhead is currently the commercial net fishery many other issues pose serious concern. These include proposed fish farms, oil & gas developments, mining projects and logging practices. For more information on these issues please click on their heading in the issues box.