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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.''

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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.

The PSC acknowledges it overestimated the number of fish. Ian Todd, a PSC spokesman, told the Toronto-based Globe and Mail newspaper: ``It now appears our estimates were incorrect. They were paper fish that weren't there.'' The large estimates may have encouraged Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to set high quotas and thus permit large-scale overfishing by commercial fleets working off the British Columbia coast and in the narrow Johnstone strait.

``We were members of [the Canada Fishing Ministry's] advisory panel, and we walked out in opposition to the aggressive fishing policy,'' says Craig Orr, director of the Steelhead Society of British Columbia, which represents sport fishermen.

The salmon shortfall is a black eye for the government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien, which has begun an internal inquiry (the second such in two years) into the disappearance of large numbers of salmon. ``The discrepancy in 1994 is unusual given our very good record,'' says Paul Sprout, acting operations branch director for the DFO's pacific region. ``We agee fisheries depend on accurate assessment of [fish] runs. If it's necessary to manage differently, we're prepared to do that.''

On top of government sanctioned overfishing, biologists say the Fraser River's unusually warm water and swifter-than-normal flow may have killed many fish. Others also blame a rise in poaching by natives and commercial boats. Enforcement has been lax as the ranks of fisheries officers have been thinned. More cuts to the DFO were announced this week.

There is broad agreement on the need for more enforcement. But Crey denies that native poaching is responsible for the lion's share of this year's shortfall. ``We do know there were some cases of native poaching,'' concurs Peter Pearse, a University of British Columbia biologist who conducted a government investigation last year into a smaller 1992 salmon shortfall. ``But the number of missing fish in 1994 is so huge there is no way it could be accounted for by abuses in the Indian fishery alone.''

Yet representatives of the commercial fishing industry place the blame squarely on native poaching. They also argue the government's aggressive fishing policy was necessary.

``The Americans were pirating our fish,'' says John Radosevic, president of the United Fisherman and Allied Workers Union, which represents fishermen and processing plant workers. ``If we wanted to put pressure on [the US] we had to do something.... If we hadn't caught [the salmon], they would have been caught by the Americans.''

The solution, at least in part, say Prof. Walters, Dr. Orr, and other biologists, is to have stronger law enforcement. They point to the need to stem the competitive ``anarchy'' among both native and commercial fishermen - in other words, a feeling that they must get what they can for themselves or else the other guy will get it.

Other suggested reforms include limiting the lobbying influence of the fishing industry; requiring the fishing industry to finance monitoring of stocks; improving technical abilities to estimate fish.

Mr. Ignace warns that if a solution isn't found, the problem of overfishing will only get worse. ``Normally, you can go down to the Thompson and you can see two swaths of red coming up each side of the river,'' he says. ``This year, you can't see that. We can't keep overfishing or there just won't be any more fish.''

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