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Fraser River eulachon 2022: Integrated fisheries management plan summary

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The purpose of this Integrated Fisheries Management Plan (IFMP) is to identify the main objectives and requirements for the eulachon fishery in the Fraser River, as well as the management measures that will be used to achieve these objectives. This document also serves to communicate the basic information on the fishery and its management to Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) staff, legislated co-management boards and other stakeholders. This IFMP provides a common understanding of the basic “rules” for the sustainable management of the fisheries resource.

This IFMP is not a legally binding instrument which can form the basis of a legal challenge. The IFMP can be modified at any time and does not fetter the Minister's discretionary powers set out in the Fisheries Act. The Minister can, for reasons of conservation or for any other valid reasons, modify any provision of the IFMP in accordance with the powers granted pursuant to the Fisheries Act.

Where DFO is responsible for implementing obligations under land claims agreements, the IFMP will be implemented in a manner consistent with these obligations. In the event that an IFMP is inconsistent with obligations under land claims agreements, the provisions of the land claims agreements will prevail to the extent of the inconsistency.

Introduction

This Integrated Fisheries Management Plan (IFMP) for Fraser River Eulachon covers the period from January 1, 2022 to December 31, 2022.

The IFMP provides a history and a broad context to the management of the Fraser River Eulachon stock and describes broader issues related to conservation. Given the short life cycle of this species, and consecutive poor returns, there are conservation concerns with Fraser River Eulachon, resulting minimal harvest for food, social and ceremonial (FSC) purposes and fishery closures for the commercial and recreational fisheries. Long term closures are required to allow for stock rebuilding.

History

Eulachon have historically been and continue to be important to Indigenous groups who harvest them for FSC purposes. Eulachon are eaten fresh, or often smoked, dried, salted, or made into grease. Eulachon grease is an important food source for Indigenous groups. It is widely bartered among Indigenous communities and is given as gifts in potlatch ceremonies. It is used in many traditional foods, to preserve fruit, as medicine and even to lubricate tools (Hay and McCarter, 2000).

There was a minor recreational fishery for Eulachon in the Fraser River in the past; however, it has been closed since 2005.

Commercial harvest of Eulachon on the Fraser River began in the 1870s. From 1903 to 1912, the Fraser River Eulachon fishery was the fifth largest commercial fishery in BC (Stacey, 1995). More recently, annual catches of Eulachon in the Fraser River from the 1980s to the mid-1990s averaged approximately 20 tonnes per year and peaked in 1996 with an estimated catch of at least 63 tonnes. Due to increasing catch and effort and low levels of abundance, the commercial fishery was closed in 1997, and since then has only be opened twice: in 2002 and 2004.

Type of fishery and participants

Indigenous harvest for FSC purposes is authorized in the lower Fraser River through communal licences. Indigenous groups apply for separate communal licences for Eulachon that are issued on a case by case basis. Fishing is primarily by drift net (e.g. gillnet). Additional gear types may be authorized in traditional fishing areas upon request.

The recreational fishery for Eulachon remains closed. The commercial Eulachon fishery also remains closed.

Stock assessment, science and traditional knowledge

Biological Synopsis

Within BC, there are 25 confirmed Eulachon spawning rivers and an additional 15 potential spawning rivers based on anecdotal information. Eulachon spawning is limited to the lower reaches of rivers, meaning they do not ascend upstream over sections of river with considerable slope and changes in elevation. In the Fraser River, the spawning season ranges from February to May (and possible early June), with peaks typically occurring in April and May (i.e. LFFA 2017, LFFA 2021, Casselman and Bettles 2020).

Eulachon are anadromous. Once hatched, larvae are rapidly flushed to estuarine or marine waters. It is believed that most live at sea for three years before returning to rivers to spawn. Based on interpreting growth rings in otoliths, age estimates of spawning Eulachon have ranged from two to seven years, with most adult fish reaching a length of 15 to 20 cm and weight of 40 to 60 grams. Large post-spawning mortalities occur and most, if not all, Eulachon are expected to die after spawning.

Long-term declines of spawning Eulachon have been observed in many rivers throughout their distribution from California to Alaska in the past 2-4 decades. The Fraser River population has been at low levels most years since 2004 although recent years have shown higher spawning numbers which may signal a positive trend.

The most recent scientific information on the biology, distribution and fishery data of Eulachon were compiled in the Recovery Potential Assessment for Eulachon – Fraser River Designatable Unit (DFO, 2015), and the Recovery Potential Assessment of Eulachon (Thaleichthys pacificus) in Canada (Schweigert et al. 2012). These documents are available online: Science Advisory Report and Research Document

Ecosystem considerations

Eulachon are prey for many species of fish, marine mammals and birds. In-river predators include White Sturgeon, Steller Sea Lions, Harbour Seals, and eagles. Spawning Eulachon and their eggs are known to be import diet components for adult and juvenile lower Fraser White Sturgeon (Echols and FRAP 1995), which has a COSEWIC assessment status of Threatened (COSEWIC 2012), and which like Eulachon, is a highly valued resource to First Nations. Salmon and Dolly Varden Trout also have been reported to feed on Eulachon eggs or larvae. Marine predators include Spiny Dogfish, Pacific Cod, Pacific Hake, Walleye Pollock, Pacific Halibut, Sablefish, Arrowtooth Flounder, Pacific Salmon, Rockfish and many other species of fish, marine mammals, and birds. Pacific Hake in particular have been implicated as important predators of Eulachon due to their spatial overlap and the common occurrence of Eulachon in their gut contents. Pacific Hake biomass has been declining since 2017, which may have had a positive impact on Eulachon abundance. However, other marine predators such as some piscivorous rockfish have increased in recent years (DFO 2020a, DFO2020b), potentially offsetting a reduction in Pacific Hake predation.

Stomach contents of juvenile and maturing Eulachon have included euphausiids, phytoplankton; copepod eggs; copepods; mysids; shrimp, ostracods and barnacle larvae as well as juvenile fish such as Pacific Sand Lance (Hay 2002, Yang et al. 2006, Pearsall and Fargo 2007, Dealy and Hodes, 2019). Samples from nearshore and offshore caught eulachon suggest that the euphausiid Thysanoessa spinifera is their main prey along with other euphasiids, fish and invertebrates (e.g. Dealy and Hodes, 2019). Euphausiid biomass anomalies off the west coast of British Columbia have been positive since the mid-2000s (Galbraith and Young 2021) indicating potentially good feeding conditions for eulachon and other pelagic species.

Similar to many small forage fish, Eulachon can exhibit high variability in annual abundance. This variability been observed in research surveys throughout their range (Anderson and Piatt 1999, Mueter and Norcross 2002, Emmett and Brodeur 2000, Schweigert et al. 2012). It is likely that climate change effects on both marine and freshwater ecosystems contribute to the variability in population abundance. For example, negative correlations have been found between Fraser River Eulachon catches and warmer ocean temperatures off Vancouver Island (Hay et al. 1997). Similarly, the recent marine heat wave in 2014-2016 in the Gulf of Alaska was related to a drop in Eulachon biomass in Alaskan bottom trawl surveys (Ferriss and Zador 2021). The impacts of climate change and ocean warming in the southern parts of their range have been implicated in changes in Eulachon distribution and abundance as well (Emmett and Brodeur 2000). Ocean deoxygenation and acidification, associated with climate change, may also negatively impact Eulachon abundance and distribution (Schweigert et al. 2012). In general, the mechanisms for the impacts are not fully understood, however, the existing evidence indicates that warmer ocean conditions have a negative impact on eulachon abundance, thus it might be expected that future warming might further reduce Eulachon abundance in British Columbia, but this topic needs further study.

At this time there is no information available on the appropriate conservation limits for Eulachon based on ecosystem considerations. Research is ongoing to better understand these ecosystem processes and the role Eulachon play in maintaining the integrity and functioning of the ecosystem.

Aboriginal knowledge

In 2019, the Fisheries Act was amended to include provisions for where the Minister may, or shall consider Indigenous knowledge in making decisions pertaining to fisheries, fish and fish habitat, as well as provisions for the additional protection of that knowledge when shared in confidence.

The term Indigenous knowledge may not be universally used, and other terms such as Indigenous Knowledge Systems, Traditional Knowledge, Traditional Ecological Knowledge, or Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge, which all convey similar concepts, may be used instead.

Indigenous knowledge can inform and fill knowledge gaps related to the health of fish stocks, and aid decision making related to fisheries management. The Government of Canada and the scientific community acknowledge the need to access and incorporate Indigenous knowledge in meaningful and respectful ways. Work is underway at a National level to develop processes for how DFO receives Indigenous knowledge and applies it to inform decision making. This will include consideration of how to engage knowledge holders, and how to ensure that the knowledge can be shared and considered in a mutually acceptable manner by both knowledge holders and the broader community of First Nations, stakeholders, managers, and policy makers involved in the fisheries. This work will be an iterative process done in collaboration with First Nations, Indigenous groups and knowledge holders, to ensure protection of the knowledge provided.

Where available, Indigenous knowledge has been incorporated into the Recovery Potential Assessment (Schweigert et al., 2012) that will be used to aid in informing the SARA listing decision and is also considered in management decisions. Indigenous knowledge was also used in informing the draft COSEWIC assessment for Eulachon.

Stock assessment

There is limited biological information available pre-season to reliably forecast Fraser River Eulachon spawner run size and guide management decisions regarding in river harvest level. A 2003 Canadian Scientific Advisory Secretariat (CSAS) research document (Hay et al., 2003) identified four potential indicators of population abundance and ‘response’ points that could be used together to guide management decisions for Fraser River Eulachon: the Spawning Stock Biomass (SSB) Index, Offshore Biomass Index, same year Columbia River catches, and the New Westminster test fishery. However, with the low population levels, discontinuation of the New Westminster test fishery, and the closure of the commercial and recreational fisheries, the Hay et al. (2003) approach is no longer used to inform management decisions. The main data source used to determine FSC harvest levels is the Fraser River Eulachon Egg and Larval Survey.

For more details, see the 2003 CSAS research document

Given the considerable variability in abundance of Fraser Eulachon in the last six years, following a series of relatively low years prior to 2015, the closure of commercial and recreational fisheries, and the discontinuation of some of these suggested indicators, additional data sources may also be considered for assessing Fraser Eulachon. These additional data sources include offshore Eulachon length-frequency data, data on ocean conditions, and genetic data.

Precautionary approach

In general, the precautionary approach in fisheries management requires cautioun when scientific knowledge is uncertain.The absence of adequate scientific information should not result in postponed action or failure to take action to avoid the risk of serious harm to fish stocks or their ecosystem. This approach is widely accepted internationally as an essential part of sustainable fisheries management. Information on DFO’s precautionary approach and the decision-making framework is available.

Applying the precautionary approach to fisheries management decisions entails establishing harvest strategies that:

The framework requires that a harvest strategy be incorporated into respective fisheries management plans to keep the removal rate moderate when the stock status is in the Healthy Zone, to promote rebuilding when stock status is low, and to ensure a low risk of serious or irreversible harm to the stock. A key component of the Precautionary Approach Framework requires that when a stock has declined to the Critical Zone, a rebuilding plan must be in place with the aim of having a high probability of the stock growing out of the Critical Zone within a reasonable timeframe.

Management issues

Limited biological information

At present, there is limited biological information available for pre-season forecasting of spawner run size for Fraser River Eulachon. The biological indicators described in the Hay et al. 2003 paper and the reference points suggested for the management of Fraser River Eulachon were developed over ten years ago and were based on a short time series. DFO is seeking to fill biological information gaps and evaluate available data in order to move towards abundance-based methods for setting annual harvest levels. In addition, the RPA (Schweigert et al. 2012) identifies several gaps in our knowledge of Eulachon biology and ecology, including limited information on ages, growth rates, and mortality.

Food, social and ceremonial access

Indigenous peoples in the Lower Fraser Area have expressed the concern that their needs are not being met by their current level of access to Eulachon for FSC purposes. A review of the current FSC harvest level and the development of an abundance-based approach to determine harvest levels for future years have been requested by Indigenous peoples.

Bycatch in other fisheries

Fraser River Eulachon are incidentally caught throughout BC in both shrimp trawl and groundfish trawl fisheries. The Department has been working with the shrimp trawl industry to minimize Eulachon bycatch. Management measures have been implemented in the West Coast Vancouver Island shrimp trawl fishery and the groundfish trawl fishery to monitor and mitigate impacts of incidental catch of Eulachon. For more details see the full plan.

Species at Risk Act (SARA)

With the implementation of SARA, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) Species Assessments has been established as an independent body of experts responsible for identifying and assessing wildlife species considered being at risk.

In May 2011, COSEWIC assessed Eulachon in BC as three populations based on their criteria for discreteness and evolutionary significance; both the Fraser River and Central Pacific Coast populations were assessed as Endangered, and the Nass/Skeena population unit was originally assessed as ‘Threatened’, but it was reassessed in 2013 as ‘Special Concern’ based on new information.

COSEWIC Status and Assessment of Eulachon (Thaleichthys pacificus) In Canada

The SARA listing decision will consider best available scientific advice (e.g. the 2015 and 2012 Recovery Potential Assessments, and the 2011 COSEWIC Assessment), management scenarios developed in 2014, Socio-Economic Analysis completed in 2016, and consultations with Indigenous peoples, affected stakeholders and the Canadian public conducted between 2012 and 2016. DFO is in the final stages of developing a listing recommendation to the Governor in Council, and given the delay since the 2016 consultations, a “check-in” period was held October 19-December 19, 2020 to ensure that viewpoints and information shared during 2016 consultations remain accurate and current. The Department will include any new information received during this period in its listing advice. The final listing decision has not been made at this time.

Obectives

The overall goal of Fisheries Management in the Pacific Region is the conservation of Canada’s fisheries resources to ensure sustainable resource utilization and generate economic prosperity, accomplished through close collaboration with resource users and stakeholders based on shared stewardship consistent with treaty and Indigenous rights.

The objective of the current Eulachon fishery is to respond to conservation concerns with Fraser River Eulachon stocks and introduce measures to allow for stock rebuilding. Specific objectives and performance measures are detailed in the IFMP and associated appendices.

A coast-wide recovery target for Eulachon is, at a minimum, to “promote the populations’ recovery such that it can qualify as special concern within the COSEWIC assessment criteria, with an interim goal of observing “positive growth in Eulachon spawning in river systems throughout” the designatable unit ranges, and a long term goal of seeing the populations reach historic levels (Schweigert et al. 2012).

For the Fraser River population, COSEWIC assessed this population as endangered based on an observed population decline of greater than 50% over three generations (approximately 10 years for Eulachon). Recovery for Fraser River Eulachon “should be reflected in an increase in this index to historical levels.” The first goal “would be a population increase that would exceed COSEWIC’s criteria for endangered status, and bring the assessment down to a species of special concern,” and “additional rebuilding would be required to bring the Fraser River [designatable unit] to a point where it was not at risk based on COSEWIC criteria.” In addition, “distribution targets for the population would include an expansion of sustained spawning ranging to the historical extent” (Schweigert et al. 2012).

To ensure conservation and protection of Eulachon stocks and their habitat and manage for ecosystem impacts through the application of scientific management principles applied in a risk averse and precautionary manner based on the best scientific advice available.

Conduct an open and transparent consultation process for discussions of harvest management issues related to Eulachon harvest. DFO currently does not have a consultative body related to harvest planning for this fishery, but is conducting extensive consultation with Indigenous peoples and stakeholders.

Subject to conservation needs, first priority is accorded to Indigenous peoples for opportunities to harvest Eulachon for food, social, and ceremonial (FSC) purposes. Feedback from consultations sessions is relied on to measure the performance of providing priority to Indigenous peoples for opportunities to catch fish for FSC purposes. Limited harvest opportunities will provide access to Indigenous peoples for FSC purposes while meeting conservations objectives. Maintaining harvest at low levels will increase the probability of rebuilding Fraser River Eulachon stocks. The Department will manage Fraser Eulachon fisheries conservatively in 2022.

Access and allocations

The Minister can, for reasons of conservation or for any other valid reasons, modify access, allocations, and sharing arrangements outlined in this IFMP in accordance with the powers granted pursuant to the Fisheries Act.

Indigenous harvest of Eulachon for FSC purposes may occur where authorized by a communal licence. The Department will provide Indigenous peoples with priority access to the resource for FSC purposes. FSC quotas may be determined through bilateral discussions between Indigenous peoples and the Department.

Recreational harvest of Eulachon is closed coast-wide. The commercial fishery has been closed since 2004; however, 16 party-based ZU licence eligibilities remain.

Shared stewardship agreements

In the past, some co-operative work has been done coast-wide, including donations of time, money, vessels, gear, samples, and offshore surveys. These measures have all contributed to our knowledge about Eulachon in the Pacific Region. Indigenous peoples and stakeholders have provided assistance in obtaining information on spawner distribution, in-season test fishery data, and survey data. Also, the commercial shrimp trawl industry provided survey assistance for the offshore index (WCVI and Queen Charlotte Sound).

The Department’s Aboriginal Fisheries Strategy (AFS) has provided funds for Indigenous peoples to assist in the spawner distribution work and the egg and larval surveys including the egg and larval survey that provides the annual SSB estimate for the Fraser River area.

Compliance plan

DFO’s Conservation and Protection (C&P) program is responsible for enforcing the Fisheries Act and pursuant regulations and related legislation. Enforcement activities are carried out by Fishery Officers across Canada who conduct patrols on land, at sea, and in the air.

The Department promotes compliance with the law through a range of activities from education and awareness activities that encourage Canadians to protect fishery resources and habitats, patrol activities to detect violations, and major case management.

Any suspected or actual fisheries, wildlife, or pollution violations can be quickly and discretely reported to the appropriate enforcement officer by using the toll free Observe, Record, and Report hotline. This toll free number is available 24 hours a day.

Observe, Record and Report:
Telephone: 1-800-465-4DFO (1-800-465-4336) or
Email: DFO.ORR-ONS.MPO@dfo-mpo.gc.ca.

Enforcement priorities and strategies for Fraser Eulachon fisheries are developed and coordinated with local C&P and Fisheries Management staff. Fishery Officers conduct directed and opportunistic patrols of the fishing area. Patrols during open and closed times will be conducted taking into consideration competing priorities and resources.

Performance review

Management Plan Evaluation Criteria (National, Pacific, and Resource Management) are described in the full plan.

A 2021 Post-Season Review (Appendix 1), Indigenous Fishing Plan (Appendix 3), Recreational Fishing Plan (Appendix 4), and Commercial Fishing Plan (Appendix 5) are also available in the full IFMP.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada contact

For additional information on this IFMP Summary, please contact Hong.Tjhie@dfo-mpo.gc.ca, or view an electronic version of the full IFMP.

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