SEATTLE — Nearly 30,000 Chinook salmon were wasted as bycatch in the Canadian trawl fishery, which was targeting hake and walleye pollock, a new report from Canadian fisheries officials found.
Bycatch, or unintended catch, by commercial trawlers off the coast of B.C. was the highest on record during the 2022-23 groundfish fishing season, the Jan. 22 report from Fisheries and Oceans Canada found, with 28,000 salmon caught, 93% of them Chinook, the largest and most prized of all salmon species.
Sydney Dixon, marine specialist for Pacific Wild, a Canadian environmental group, estimated the amount of fish caught from U.S. waters at 7,700 fish — enough to feed three or four orcas for a year depending on the sizes of the salmon and the orca, she said.
“It’s a pretty devastating waste of a species that is … a food source for an endangered species in part of Canada and the U.S.”
The Chinook caught offshore of Vancouver Island included spring, summer and fall Chinook, from rivers all over the region: the Nooksack, Samish, Skagit, Stillaguamish, Skykomish. From the Nisqually, White, Elwha, Hoko, Lower Columbia, Cowlitz and Lewis and the Hanford Reach of the Columbia and the Snake rivers.
All were caught by fishers in Canadian waters,during 847 trawl trips. Monitors tracked the fishery from Sept. 26, 2022, to Feb. 20, 2023, in the first year of an enhanced Canadian monitoring effort for salmon bycatch.
Dixon commended the agency for launching the monitoring program. “We would like to see monitoring for more important species on our coast at a time when it has never been harder to be these species. With climate change, we are in unprecedented times. … I would hope the social license for this kind of waste erodes.”
Deborah Giles, science and research director for Wild Orca, a research nonprofit based on San Juan Island, was dismayed by the wasted Chinook. “That is a lot of fish, a lot wasted fish that the whales could absolutely utilize, and that is just one fishery in one region.”
Managers should leave enough fish in the water to feed not only the 74 living southern resident orcas but enough for a larger population — especially pregnant mothers, she said. Most orca pregnancies are lost because of lack of food.
“We need to leave enough for the unborn animals — that is what we are losing,” Giles said. The most recently born southern resident orca calf died after only about a month of life.
The southern resident orcas were listed in 2005 as a federally protected endangered species. They are facing at least three threats: lack of food, especially Chinook salmon; vessel noise that makes it harder for them to hunt; and pollution.
The news of the Chinook bycatch came even as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has put out its program for raising more Chinook in hatcheries to feed orcas for public review. Raising food for wild animals as part of a recovery strategy is unusual and is typically done on a limited basis or involving dead prey or animal feed, according to NOAA.
The program, begun in 2020, has cost $25 million so far in federal funds and is intended to increase prey for orcas by pumping out millions more hatchery fish.
An environmental impact statement contains NOAA’s first estimates of how much additional food in adult Chinook returns was produced for the orcas by the bump up in hatchery releases. In 2022, the orcas had anywhere from 0.13% to 6% more Chinook to eat, depending on the time of year and the area where the fish were released. The numbers were higher in 2023, from 0.22% to 8%, again depending on the time of year and the area, according to the EIS. Whether the orcas or some other predator ate them — or the Chinook escaped to spawn — is unknown.
Under the agency’s preferred alternative, the program would continue until at least 2028, at a cost of more than $6 million a year. Alternatives include discontinuing the program, further reducing fisheries to leave more fish for orcas, and habitat improvements to increase naturally produced salmon.
The environmental impact statement for the program is open for public comment until March 11. Written comments may be submitted by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.