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B.C. First Nation 'outraged' over Alaskan salmon interceptions

Tŝilhqot’in Nation tribal chair Joe Alphonse is demanding a seat at the Canada-U.S. bilateral negotiations to address Alaskan fishers intercepting salmon headed for B.C. rivers
Alaska fishers 2
Commercial purse seine fishers haul their net while fishing for pink and chum salmon in the southeastern region of Alaska.

A B.C. First Nation is calling on the Canadian government to take action over reports Alaskan fishers are intercepting B.C.-bound salmon. 

In a press release Friday, the Tŝilhqot’in Nation said it was “outraged” over a recent report detailing Alaskan catches of several salmon species before they returned to B.C. rivers to spawn. 

It’s calling on Canada to create an independent review into the Pacific Salmon Treaty and “the failure by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to meaningfully represent First Nation interests” at the international table. 

“This is outrageous,” said tribal chair Joe Alphonse in a written statement. “Our Nation has made huge sacrifices to conserve salmon over the years.”

The call comes a day after the release of a report, commissioned by Watershed Watch Salmon Society and SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, that says Alaskan fishers caught 800,000 sockeye in 2021 along the U.S.-Canada border. Of those, over half a million intercepted salmon were returning home to B.C.’s Skeena and Nass rivers.

On the Skeena River alone, 486,000 sockeye heading home through Alaska are thought to have been intercepted. That represents at least $6 million for local fishers. 

“It would have been huge… We’re talking about a couple hundred gillnetters up there that have had zero income,” said Greg Taylor, one of the report’s authors and a longtime consultant with commercial and First Nations fisheries. 

“These people are not wealthy people. These are people sitting on the beach in the First Nations communities in the north; $6 million dollars of cash money… we're talking the difference between having a reasonable life and a reasonable income and having nothing.” 

An untold number of other salmon are thought to have been intercepted on their way south — to the Fraser River and down the Canadian and U.S. west coast. 

B.C. salmon populations have plummeted to record lows in recent years. In response, the federal government closed 60 per cent of B.C.’s commercial salmon harvest in June 2021 and announced a fishing licence buy-back program under its $647-million Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative.

Alphonse said the Tŝilhqot’in Nation has implemented closures and denied its citizens their Aboriginal right to fish. 

“While hundreds of thousands of B.C.-bound salmon are harvested by commercial fisheries in U.S. waters, Tŝilhqot’in families have gone hungry and have been denied their Aboriginal right to fish,” added a spokesperson for the nation.

This isn’t the first time Alaskan fishers are alleged to have intercepted salmon on their way to B.C. spawning grounds. The Tŝilhqot’in Nation says that in 2019, Alaskan fishers caught 45,000 of its salmon in a year only 158,000 returned. That represents 20 per cent of the entire run.  

A spokesperson for the nation said the repeated “over-harvesting in Alaskan waters is threatening the future existence of these stocks.”

Alphonse called for an immediate review over how the Pacific Salmon Treaty is structured, so First Nations have a bigger role at the international negotiations. 

“We demand our own seat at the Pacific Salmon Commission to represent our Chilko fishery directly,” he said.

Since 1985, the Canada-U.S. Pacific Salmon Treaty has been in place to settle international imbalances in fisheries, prevent overfishing, and ensure both countries receive equal benefits from healthy salmon populations. Over the last three decades, new agreements have been reached every 10 years. But the last agreement was signed in 2019 and the Pacific Salmon Treaty isn’t up for renewal until 2028.

In an email to Glacier Media, the press secretary for the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard said DFO officials are aware of the report and are reviewing it. 

“We know how important it is to protect and restore the Pacific salmon population,” said DFO press secretary Claire Teichman.

A spokesperson for the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries said the ministry would review the report with their federal colleagues and continue to work with other governments to reduce bycatch in the Alaskan salmon, halibut and trawl fisheries.

Part of the problem comes down to failed attempts at conservation — the federal government’s long-term mismanagement of West Coast salmon fisheries and poor forestry practices have both played a big role preventing the next generation of fish to spawn.

Canada’s Pacific salmon populations have dropped to such low levels that those returning from Alaskan waters are becoming more important every year.

At the same time, climate change is making ocean and river water hotter and that creates a huge amount of variability in how many salmon survive. 

When warm plumes of ocean water, such as ‘the Blob,’ bulge into the northern Pacific, salmon migrating back to their home rivers tend to follow the cold water.  

As a result, they often return from a more northwesterly direction, hitting the rugged Alaskan coast and bumping down toward Canadian waters. That is, until a net gets in the way.

Taylor says warming oceans are also leading salmon to arrive later, so that the bilateral treaty provides fewer protections for Canadian-bound fish.

Once they make landfall on the Alaskan coast, there are gaps in regulation between Canada and U.S. fishers as well. Whereas in B.C., fishers are issued licences to harvest specific species, in Alaska, broad licences mean fishers aren’t required to report their bycatch of non-target species and much of what gets thrown back lands in the water dead.

The impacts cascade across B.C.’s natural environment. 

Many of the rivers where salmon go to spawn in B.C.’s north rely on salmon as the base of the entire food chain. They feed bears and birds, and when they die, the carcasses litter the forest and fill the rivers with nutrients. 

At sea, coho salmon are the main source of food for southern resident killer whales. But according to Kurt Beardslee of the Wild Fish Conservancy, only three per cent of the chinook fished in southeast Alaska are from Alaskan rivers. The other 97 per cent comes from B.C., Washington and Oregon, where if they could make the journey, they would help keep the endangered species alive. 

According to Beardslee, the only way to solve the transboundary dispute is to tie fishing licences to the rivers where they spawn. That way coastal communities will have more incentive to protect the river ecosystems.

“When those coastal communities are doing everything we can to protect the habitats, and the destiny of their fish populations is happening offshore or in another country, it doesn’t set up a very good scenario,” he said. 

“Up and down the coast. Measures like this are going to need to be implemented.”

In 2020, the Washington-based organization sued the National Marine Fisheries Service for violations of the Endangered Species Act. In September, a judge ruled the U.S. agency had breached the act when it authorized the commercial salmon harvest in southeast Alaska. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration breaches stemmed from the approval of massive new hatchery programs backed by federal dollars and relying on a poorly developed plan to ensure the health of future salmon stocks in southeast Alaska.

The case is still winding through the U.S. court system. 

As for Alphonse and the Tŝilhqot’in Nation, ensuring the survival of their fish cuts to the heart of their rights and title — all options, including taking the matter to court, he said, are on the table. 

“We cannot wait to fix this — it has too many consequences for Indigenous Peoples who rely on salmon for sustenance, our economy and our ability to transmit our culture to future generations,” said the tribal chair.