VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA--(Marketwired - July 17, 2013) - Skeena River sockeye salmon are returning in desperately low numbers this summer, causing concern among conservationists for the future of one of BC's largest and most diverse salmon runs.
The run collapse has triggered closures of commercial and recreational fisheries in BC, and may trigger restrictions on First Nations' fisheries for food, social, and ceremonial purposes. Meanwhile, commercial fisheries have been intercepting Skeena sockeye in southeast Alaska, less than 100 kilometres from the mouth of the Skeena River, near Prince Rupert, BC.
The cause of the apparent collapse is not known and SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, Watershed Watch Salmon Society, and Raincoast Conservation Foundation are calling on Alaskan fishery managers to put conservation ahead of short-term commercial interests, by allowing more Skeena sockeye to make it home to spawn.
"BC fisheries have been severely curtailed and closed, because the run is looking so dismal, and First Nations along the Skeena River may be restricted in their food fishing. Yet the Alaskans have been hitting these fish just across the border," said Greg Knox, Executive Director of SkeenaWild Conservation Trust.
Pacific salmon from British Columbia rivers spend their adult lives feeding in the North Pacific Ocean and swim through Alaskan waters as they make their way back to spawn in their natal rivers. Commercial net fisheries in southeast Alaska catch up to 20% of all sockeye returning to BC's Skeena River, often as "by-catch" in fisheries targeting local Alaskan pink and chum salmon. The Canada/US Pacific Salmon Treaty, which covers fisheries on both sides of the border, does not prohibit the capture of depleted BC stocks in Alaskan fisheries.
"The Alaskan fishermen could still fish for the more abundant local stocks they are targeting, without harming depleted stocks from BC," said Aaron Hill, a biologist with Watershed Watch Salmon Society. "They just need to move their fisheries out of these open areas where the BC-bound salmon are being caught."
"It is interesting to note," added Knox, "that the Alaskan State constitution would require Alaska to take action were these to be Alaskan stocks of concern. We hear a lot about how well-managed these Alaskan fisheries are, but when it comes to BC salmon swimming through their waters, they're not walking the talk."
The groups are also calling on Ottawa to defend Canada's interests by doing more to protect vulnerable salmon runs from overfishing in US waters.
"The federal government talks a good game about protecting Canadian interests abroad," said Hill, "but it seems that BC salmon haven't made it on to that list."