BC Trawlers Caught and Discarded Over 28,000 Salmon As Bycatch in 2023

BC trawlers are responsible for 28,000 salmon bycatch in 2022/2023
Of the 45 boats in BC’s Option A groundfish trawling fleet, six large freezer trawlers were responsible for almost 75% of the Chinook bycatch. Photo credit: Pacific Wild

BC trawlers caught and discarded over 28,000 salmon in the 2022-2023 season, almost 93% (26,000) of them being Chinook salmon. This number for Chinook is triple that of the previous 14-year average and higher than any number reported since 2008. Chinook salmon are a species of concern and a primary food source for endangered Southern Resident killer whales.

These findings come from a pre-published report by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), which conducted a new enhanced monitoring program on the bycatch collected by BC’s deep water trawling fleet.

All that salmon bycatch could have fed endangered southern resident killer whales
According to Pacific Wild Marine Specialist Sydney Dixon, the amount of Chinook caught as bycatch could have fed three or four endangered Southern Resident killer whales for a year. Photo credit: Chez on Dreamstime

Today, there are only 75 Southern Resident killer whales from California to BC. A lack of Chinook salmon is one of the biggest reasons for their population decline.

The DFO estimates that these whales have a 24% chance of being functionally extinct in as little as 75 years from now. 

BC’s Trawling Problem

​​BC’s Option A groundfish fleet consists of 45 boats that operate. The boats primarily trawl for hake, pollock, flounder, or other groundfish, which Sydney Dixon, a Marine Specialist with the advocacy group Pacific Wild, says are being caught to create low-value products such as fish sticks and pet food.

The majority of this salmon bycatch occurred during a five-month period between September 2022 and February 2023, with 18,867 salmon caught. Photo credit: Pacific Wild

These new findings mark the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic that DFO is subjecting BC’s groundfish trawl to enhanced monitoring. During COVID-19, BC’s groundfish trawl was allowed to self-record salmon bycatch numbers, and the numbers they reported were approximately 12% lower than what was recorded by DFO’s new enhanced program.

The new monitoring program requires trawlers to cut off the heads of the salmon they catch so that the DFO can trace the salmon’s DNA and coded wire tags. Tags are implanted in the snouts of juvenile migrating salmon in BC.

80% to 90% of the diets of Southern Resident killer whales are made up of Chinook salmon. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries on Flickr

This information allows the DFO to pinpoint where the salmon came from before they were caught. Based on this, the salmon habitats hardest hit by this season’s groundfish trawl bycatch are the Strait of Georgia and watersheds in Chilliwack, Harrison, and Cowichan. Other affected areas are Big Qualicum River, Nicola River, Robertson Creek, Puntledge River, and Quinsam River.​

The region where the majority of this bycatch took place was Queen Charlotte and Johnsone Strait followed by the west coast of Vancouver Island, and then the Strait of Georgia. 

More than 20,000 Chinook died and were thrown overboard and another 3,700 were either discarded as offal, waste, or compost.

“There’s millions of dollars going into the protection and recovery of these Southern Resident killer whales and millions of dollars going into the conservation, recovery and restoration of Chinook. The level of bycatch within this indiscriminate fishery, in my opinion, really undermines the conservation efforts that are happening.”

Sydney Dixon, Marine Specialist at Pacific Wild
The report was also able to determine that the majority of the Chinook salmon were caught as bycatch in the waters surrounding Haida Gwaii, the Johnstone Strait, and the southern west coast of Vancouver Island. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries West Coast

The DFO’s new enhanced monitoring program is being seen as a step in the right direction, but more action will be required to ensure the protection of Chinook salmon, a keystone species in BC.

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