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Sockeye salmon in a river in the Bristol Bay, Alaska watershed. (Ben Knight/ The Associated Press/Ben Knight/ The Associated Press)
Sockeye salmon in a river in the Bristol Bay, Alaska watershed. (Ben Knight/ The Associated Press/Ben Knight/ The Associated Press)

Gary Mason

B.C. should look to Alaska for tips on salmon management Add to ...

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for life - unless, of course, he lives in British Columbia, where he'll alternate between years where he's not able to throw a line in the water at all and others where the oceans and rivers are so thick with salmon they are literally jumping into his boat.

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The salmon fishery on the West Coast is officially a mess. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has made bad forecasts in the past, but no one can remember when the much-maligned federal department blew a call by almost 20 million.

Worse, even as the sockeye began returning to the Fraser River in droves in late August, DFO refused to allow a fishery. It had to make sure it wasn't seeing things. Consequently, millions of sockeye were lost while DFO dithered - money that cash-strapped fishermen desperately need.

This wouldn't have happened in Alaska, which for decades has built one of the most successful, most sustainable salmon fisheries in the world. One B.C. needs to be looking at. It all began when Alaska achieved statehood in 1959 and it took over management of the resource from the federal government, which mismanaged it into the ground.

Alaska harvested more than 170 million salmon in 2009, compared to the near-complete disappearance of the species in B.C. in the same year.

What was thought to be evidence of a complete collapse of the West Coast salmon fishery prompted the federal government to set up a commission to investigate. Then, a year later, 30 million turn up at the door of the Fraser. What gives?

Hopefully, the commission head, B.C. justice Bruce Cohen, will provide some answers. Although Tory MP John Cummins is not optimistic, saying the commission is focusing on the scientific questions behind the wildly fluctuating salmon numbers instead of how the resource is managed. However, the commission's terms of reference clearly state:

"To consider the policies and practices of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (the "Department") with respect to the sockeye salmon fishery in the Fraser River - including ... its fisheries policies and programs, its risk management strategies, its allocation of Departmental resources and its fisheries management practices and procedures, including monitoring, counting of stocks, forecasting and enforcement."

That, to me, sounds like the commission will be examining how the DFO conducts business and sets policies and whether those policies are working.

As a point of reference, Mr. Cohen may want to look at how Alaska baits its hooks.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Salmon Management Model is one of the most successful in the world when it comes to sustaining a sometimes temperamental species of fish. It focuses primarily on one thing, escapement. That is the amount of salmon in a particular stock required to make it to the spawning ground to provide the highest probability of achieving the maximum sustained yield over time.

In Alaska, the forecast for any given salmon run is merely a starting point. As soon as the fish begin returning to inland waterways, ADFG starts to collect data on their numbers and the forecast almost goes out the window, according to Geron Bruce, who is assistant director in the ADFG's division of commercial fisheries.

How much of a particular run gets harvested depends on how confident ADFG officials are about reaching their escapement targets. But hitting those numbers is paramount, which is how you guarantee the long-term survival of the species.

But Alaska has become very good at two things: getting an accurate count of escapement numbers as the run returns and adjusting the harvest accordingly. (Its forecast numbers are generally far more accurate than DFO's as well). ADFG has area management biologists who have the authority to open, close or modify openings in a particular fishing area based on the best information they have.

"If we're ahead of our escapement numbers we'll open things up, if we're behind we'll shut 'em down," said Mr. Bruce. "It's a constantly moving target. We issue literally hundreds of emergency orders modifying harvest numbers based on the continuous assessment of the run." And can do so on a moment's notice.

B.C. fishermen probably should have harvested about 80 to 90 per cent of the current 30-million-plus salmon run. Yet, because of the DFO's reluctance to open the fishery until it could verify the run size, 10 million fish are estimated to have been lost.

That wouldn't have happened in Alaska. We should find out why.

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