The Department of Fisheries and Oceans should “establish a strategy to collect and assess data necessary to monitor and report on the status of smaller stocks, and establish and make public a deadline for doing so” – the 1997 Auditor General’s Committee Report – Pacific Salmon: Sustainability of the Resource Base.
“How do DFO’s numbers of spawners in the creeks this year compare with your counts as a patrol officer in 1979,” my wife said on our way back from Weaver Creek Spawning Channel two weeks ago.
We’d driven up from Maple Ridge on our annual pilgrimage to check on an old sturgeon at Inches Creek Hatchery, named Arnold, and to estimate salmon in 12 productive streams (smaller stocks), including Whonnock and Silverdale in the west, Legace, Bouchier, at Mission, Nicomen Slough near Deroche, and Weaver along the Harrison River.
My DFO catalogue of escapements covered 1947-1979.
DFO diligently monitored “smaller stocks,” recorded the numbers for each species, and noted factors that weakened the resource – logging, farming, urbanization.
But, in 1980, DFO reduced counting efforts, threatening the resource base which in 1990 alone was, “a commercial fishery worth $265 [million], and the sports fishery brought in $228 million.
“The alteration of salmon habitat leading to its loss is a significant factor on placing stress on the resource,” states the report.
“Many small stocks are under stress or threatened,” because DFO abandoned its policy for habitat, one “designed to produce ‘net gain’ of places for fish to spawn and rear; one “guided by conservation, restoration, and development of fish habitat.”
DFO was focusing instead on more lucrative “large stocks” of chinook and sockeye, such as the run that packs Whonnock Creek S. Channel.
Small streams faced increased and unmonitored disruption and disturbance.
“The alteration of salmon habitat leading to its loss is a significant factor on placing stress on the resource,” concludes the report. “Many small stocks are under stress or threatened.”
It recommended DFO return to its “net gain” policy to avoid disaster.
Counting small stocks slowed further, a fact concealed from the general public.
Then DFO officers stopped counting altogether.
“We haven’t counted escapements since 1994,” a contact told me. “Cutbacks in staff and funding. Countings are done by the stock assessment branch now.”
The branch doesn’t count fish in small streams, either. Its spreadsheets of numbers from 1994-2009 show counts for just three of the 12 creeks I gave them (Chehalis, Legace, Norrish), and only one (Whonnock Creek) in 2010.
There’s one number for all salmon.
Unlike my old catalogue, there’s no breakdown for species. Most streams are stamped, ‘NI’ (not inspected).
Nobody came by.
The branch relies on test nets at Albion, and counts taken at the Chehalis and Harrison rivers – a proxy or substitute to estimate the returning sockeye, spring, and coho; numbers for determining openings for commercial, sports and aboriginal fishing.
Fisheries officers are saddened by fact they’re not counting small streams any more. It helped intercept environmental impacts on them, protect and enhance small stocks.
“On an environmental basis, they’re just as important,” said Tracy Cone of the branch. “But you can only do so much. Unfortunately, it’s been that way for some time.”
But, she reasoned, “if you’ve got Chehalis producing 500,000 chum and Bouchier or Legace a couple of thousand, there’s more importance on the 500,000. The Harrison is one of the most productive areas. It gives a general indicator whether stocks are going well generally. The bulk of our work is focused on chinook and sockeye, on the economic value of the fishery. Chum are at the bottom of the list.”
But, on whose list? The environment was not “just as important” in the 1997 report, but crucial in sustaining the stock. It recognized the value of small stocks and their habitat, and urged DFO to honor them. Report writers emphasized the public’s wish to enjoy them forever.
Whose list? In 1980, while DFO set out to ignore small stocks, school kids released chum fry – supplied by DFO – in small streams throughout B.C. They still do. Have they been deceived by an agency that places no value on the fish they nurture?
Whose list? Are hundreds of volunteer streamkeepers trying to restore small stocks, laboring under the allusion that DFO still has a policy of “net gain” for all wild salmon?
We’ll ask them, next time.
– Jack Emberly is a retired teacher, local author and environmentalist.