There is no funding agreement in place to continue test fisheries on the West Coast, a key program that allows managers to calculate how many salmon are returning to the Fraser River each year, a federal judicial inquiry has learned.
Jim Cave, head of stock monitoring for the Pacific Salmon Commission, and Paul Ryall, a senior Department of Fisheries and Oceans official, both testified Monday that test fishing is crucial in providing stock estimates, so managers can determine how many fish can be caught.
But the two officials told the Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River that a five-year funding program for test fishing is coming to an end this year, and it's not clear yet how test fishing will be paid for after it expires.
"I'm not aware there's an agreed-upon solution," said Mr. Ryall, in response to questions from Wendy Baker, associate counsel for the commission headed by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen.
Mr. Ryall, who was head of DFO's salmon team until becoming co-ordinator of his department's involvement with the Cohen commission, said funding for test fishing became a problem after the Federal Court ruled, in 2006, that the government could not finance any activities by granting a licence to fish, then selling the catch.
Until that ruling, DFO had financed test fisheries by allowing the contractor to sell the fish or crabs that were taken in the tests. Across Canada, DFO spends about $12-million annually doing test fisheries, with half of that spent on the Pacific Coast.
In the wake of the Federal Court ruling, DFO approved a five-year funding program to cover the cost of test fisheries while a long-term solution was worked out.
Mr. Ryall said one proposal called for the Fisheries Act to be amended, so that paying for test fishing with the proceeds of the catch would be legal. But the legislative changes suggested were never made. Nor did a proposal to have industry pick up the costs come to fruition.
"This will be the last year [of funding] … I don't know what options are contemplated at this point," Mr. Ryall said.
He said DFO has been looking at ways to reduce costs, but cutting back on test fisheries is difficult because they are such an important management tool.
As salmon return to the West Coast in the summer, fishing boat operators are contracted to set nets in specific places, to see how many salmon are caught. Throughout the summer and fall, the test fisheries take place in Georgia Strait, along the west coast of Vancouver Island and at several locations up to and inside the lower Fraser River.
The data collected in the test fisheries is compared with the results that have been gathered on similar tests over the past 50 years, the size of the salmon run is estimated, and commercial catch limits are set. As the salmon run approaches the river, more data is gathered and catch limits can be adjusted in-season.
"Without that information we don't have the information to manage the fisheries," Mr. Ryall said. "We need those test fisheries to properly manage."
Herring, cod, halibut, crab, shrimp, salmon and other species are managed through test fisheries.
Mr. Cave said since the Federal Court ruling came down, there have been steady pressures to reduce spending on test fisheries. He said there have been some reductions in effort, with none taking place on the west coast of Vancouver Island last year, for example, "but we've managed to retain our core test fisheries."
He said cutting back on the number of test fisheries can dramatically change the quality of data managers have to work with, so any reductions in effort have to be done carefully.