Where Have All the Sockeye Salmon Gone?
The Canadian government is being blamed for having launched a `fish war' against the US, thus helping to deplete its own stocks
THE granddaddy of Canadian salmon runs is the world-renowned ``Adams River run.'' Normally, hordes of travelers pull off the Trans-Canada Highway into Kamloops and other towns along the Adams just to see the fiery-red fish come home en masse.Skip to next paragraph
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But this year, both tourists and the sockeye salmon are in surprisingly short supply. Biologists, sport fishermen, and natives blame the Canadian government for waging an ill-advised ``fish war'' against the United States that has exacerbated, if not caused, the salmon shortfall.
``Before, you used to almost be able to walk on the fish, there were so many of them,'' says Don Ignace, a Skeetchestn Indian who fishes on the Thompson River, just below where the Adams River empties into it. ``Now you put your net in the water and you wait.''
Salmon run from June through early November. Each year, millions swim south from waters off Alaska to spawn in United States and Canadian rivers. This year, something went wrong. The government predicted 3.4 million would return to the Adams River in one run. But 1.5 million appeared at the mouth of the Fraser, the start of the upstream swim.
All told, at least 3.2 million fewer fish than were expected came to spawn this year. The shortfall will end up costing the provincial salmon industry an estimated $60 million (Canadian; US$44 million) or 15 percent of expected revenues. The ecological damage is harder to estimate, though some biologists say to rebuild the stock will require a decade of reduced fishing quotas.
Until this year, Canadian salmon stocks were at their highest levels since the 1970s. Canada had limited the catch in recent decades to allow populations decimated in the 1950s to rebuild. But this spring, after salmon quota talks with the US fell apart, Canada began slapping surcharges on US fishing boats entering Canadian waters. It later lifted the fees, but the fish war had begun.
Still angry over Alaskan fishermens' growing annual haul of Canada-bound salmon, Canada's federal government - in consultation with industry - decided to limit the number of salmon caught by US fishermen in the border waters of the Juan de Fuca strait, north of Seattle.
``There will be an aggressive fishing strategy,'' Canadian Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin said in June. ``We will fish in a manner that will seek to maximize the benefits to Canadians and where possible ... to minimize the [commercial] benefits to American fishermen.'' The idea apparently backfired. In pounding the US, Canadian salmon stocks were hammered too. Now, the finger pointing has begun.
``Sockeye had their best [ocean] survival rate in history,'' says Carl Walters, a University of British Columbia biologist. ``The Adams River run this year was going to be bigger than forecast - and the fish came in good numbers. They just got clobbered by the [Canadian] commercial fleet.''
While many blame government mismanagement for allowing too many fish to be caught by Canadian fishermen, sources say the government is pointing fingers at the Pacific Salmon Commission (PSC), a US-Canadian body that estimates returning salmon stocks. The commission uses a sonar counter some say is inaccurate, though PSC biologists dispute this.