Terminal Fisheries

Known-stock terminal fisheries, practiced by Indigenous nations for thousands of years, could help solve salmon decline

Anna Kemp

Photo © River Select Fisheries Cooperative

Until approximately 120 years ago, the majority of BC salmon fisheries were terminal fisheries, practiced by First Nations. Terminal fisheries manage and harvest salmon in or near their natal streams, as they return to spawn. The development of industrial fisheries on the coast restricted and even outlawed many of these Indigenous terminal fisheries, fundamentally changing how salmon were managed in BC.

BC’s wild salmon now face a complex array of pressures, from habitat loss and degradation, to fish farm diseases, to climate change. Harvesting places additional pressure on already stressed populations. Many rivers see lower salmon returns every year, and our current fisheries management system has led to many populations being listed as threatened or endangered. Many argue we need to return to fisheries management strategies practiced successfully by First Nations for literally thousands of years. Shifting more of our commercial fisheries to known-stock terminal fisheries will help us rebuild endangered salmon populations, maintain the ecological health of our watersheds, and support economic development in First Nations fishing communities.

“Clearly, the management system that was in place prior to colonization was much more successful than the one we have now. Pre-contact, we saw the persistence of salmon populations and vibrant fishing economies through thousands of years, and now, post-contact, we have many populations in the critical red zone.”

Under current fisheries management practices, the majority of our commercial fisheries are marine mixed-stock. Greg Taylor, a fisheries management advisor who has worked in the BC seafood industry for over 30 years, explains the key challenge with marine mixed-stock fisheries:

“In the Fraser River there are 44 genetically distinct populations of sockeye and the only real similarity between them, other than being sockeye, is they all pass under Port Mann Bridge. Mixed-stock marine fisheries focus on just a few productive populations with most weaker populations of sockeye harvested as incidental bycatch. This, unfortunately, includes many critically endangered populations which cannot withstand the fishing pressure.”

While improvements to fishing and management practices are decreasing the impact of marine mixed-stock fisheries, a large part of the solution lies in moving fishing effort to known-stock terminal fisheries. Moving fishing effort to known-stock terminal fisheries allows for selective harvesting of only the productive salmon populations, and conserving those in danger of being overfished.

“Clearly, the management system that was in place prior to colonization was much more successful than the one we have now. Pre-contact, we saw the persistence of salmon populations and vibrant fishing economies through thousands of years, and now, post-contact, we have many populations in the critical red zone.”

Taylor says preserving these genetically distinct populations is critical for the survival of salmon as a species.

“We are living through a difficult time in the history of salmon. Climate change is fundamentally altering their habitats and transforming the whole North Pacific ecosystem….Salmon are genetically diverse because they have evolved since the last ice age to recolonize huge territories with vastly different habitats. As we lose genetic diversity, we lose the adaptability of the species as a whole.”

Group of people harvesting salmon by hand-pulling nets in the river

Photo © River Select Fisheries Co-operative

Genetic diversity is not only important for future salmon fisheries. Success in current fisheries relies on a diversity of genetically-distinct salmon populations.

“Populations go up and down each year, and often not in tandem. If you have a diversity of populations it allows you to maintain commercial fisheries over time.”

David Moore, business manager at River Select, has been working to support terminal fisheries for many years. River Select is a fisheries cooperative that provides Indigenous terminal fisheries with logistics and marketing support. They currently work with five member companies from around the province.

River Select grew out of a policy board, the Inland Salmon Producers Association (ISPA), created with help from federal government funding to facilitate best practices around the growth and development of modern commercial terminal fisheries.

“ISPA created a First Nations self-certification system for the emerging inland commercial salmon fishery around a framework of quality, value and sustainability…. We had an involved understanding of terminal fisheries. We demonstrated they are viable, sustainable, and there are markets for these fish. But we realized the board was not the place for business, so we worked with a co-op developer and created River Select.”

One of River Select’s current initiatives is tied to the notion of traceability. They include a QR code on each package that links to stories and images about the fishery it came from.

“All salmon are different, depending which population they come from. They have different qualities, different tastes, and may be each best suited to different products. This really speaks to traditional knowledge.You can look at how traditional preparation methods were tied to those qualities and bring out the best depending on where they were harvested.”

Developing commercial terminal fisheries is more than a business proposition; it builds towards economic reconciliation for indigenous fishing communities whose economies were crippled by colonization.

Desiree Loyie, assistant manager at Talok Fisheries, grew up in the small communities of Lake Babine Nation in BC’s north. Now living with her family in Prince George, Desiree travels back every summer to her family’s home in Old Fort, and to Tachet where Talok Fisheries, a member of River Select, operates.

four people hand-pulling fishing nets in the Fraser River

Communities in the territories of Lake Babine Nation are pretty quiet most of the year. But when the sockeye return, the communities come alive. People have a chance to earn some income as well as catch the salmon which will sustain them through the long winter months.

“Our people are salmon people. We live off salmon and rely on it heavily. A lot of people in our communities are low-income families. The salmon are a big part of how our people are able to survive. And there are so few opportunities for jobs or making money on reserve, the jobs created by Talok help our people immensely.”

Unfortunately, low returns, like last year’s, mean Talok’s commercial fishery does not open.

“Our salmon numbers are decreasing and we need to know why. You hear a lot about overfishing, which I think that might be happening in the coastal fisheries. But in our inland fisheries, we are able to make sure enough salmon have spawned. We do not take more than the population can sustain…. We respect the salmon. We rely on them and we want to make sure their numbers stay strong.

“If we move to more terminal harvest, we can identify surpluses when they arrive at the spawning grounds and safely harvest them. We would be able to have our cake and eat it too. We could rebuild salmon populations and promote economic opportunities.”

“It’s not only us that depend on the salmon. It’s the animals too. All around the Fulton River, you can see some of the most beautiful eagles hanging around and the bears, trying to get ready for winter too. Once the salmon spawn and die, that carcass is full of nutrients from the ocean, creating fertilizer for the forests and shores. It helps the ecosystem in a lot of ways.”

Greg Taylor says that moving to terminal fisheries would not only improve our ability to monitor and protect endangered populations, but would actually increase the size of our commercial harvests.

“Currently we are always on this knife edge, wondering if there is enough fish. We tend to underharvest the most abundant populations of salmon and overharvest those less abundant ones. That is just the nature of mixed stock harvest. Whereas if we move to more terminal harvest, we can identify surpluses when they arrive at the spawning grounds and safely harvest them. We would be able to have our cake and eat it too. We could rebuild salmon populations and promote economic opportunities.”

The vision, according to David Moore, is to restore 50% or more of the fishery to terminal selective harvests where we can have confidence in the sustainability of our fisheries. That way we can manage for escapement and also meet the priority food, social, and ceremonial fisheries before we commit to commercial and sport fishing. Escapement is the number of salmon that return to their natal streams to spawn.

“Management agencies have been loathe to set up escapement targets for all the stocks in the Fraser or Skeena river…. Once we have escapement goals, we can identify and measure when a population has met its escapement goal and safely harvest only the surplus. We can’t do it now because we don’t have the most basic of tools, which is an escapement target.”

Unfortunately, says Taylor, a key gap in our fisheries management strategy is the development of escapement goals for specific salmon populations.

“Believe it or not, management agencies have been loathe to set up escapement targets for all the stocks in the Fraser or Skeena river. With 44 sockeye populations in the Fraser river, we should have 44 escapement goals like they do in other jurisdictions. Once we have escapement goals, we can identify and measure when a population has met its escapement goal and safely harvest only the surplus. We can’t do it now because we don’t have the most basic of tools, which is an escapement target.”

The solutions, according to people in the industry like Taylor, Moore and Loyie, are to respect Indigenous fishing rights and to support the need for escapement for all salmon stocks by moving to terminal fisheries. If we do that, we give salmon a chance at surviving climate change, while potentially harvesting more salmon than we are today.

As consumers, we can support the development of terminal fisheries by asking retailers and distributors for terminally-harvested fish, like those bearing the River Select brand.


Anna Kemp is Communications Manager for Watershed Watch Salmon Society, a science-based charity advocating for the conservation of BC’s wild salmon.

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