British Columbia Wild Salmon

Last Update: October 2013

The British Columbia (BC) salmon fishery harvests five species of Pacific salmon (pink, chum, sockeye, Chinook, and coho salmon) in coastal, adjacent open-ocean, and inland areas of the province. In 2011–2012, BC accounted for 1.47% of wild-capture Pacific salmon harvest, with pink salmon comprising approximately 36.13% of the regional share, followed by chum (31.30%), sockeye (17.40%), and coho salmon (5.52%) (FishSource 2013). The majority of BC salmon is sold in Canada, with exports to North America, Europe, and Japan.   

Commercial salmon licenses are issued for three gear types: purse seines, trolling lines, and gillnets. In-river terminal fisheries make use of additional gear including weirs, fish wheels, beach seines, and dip nets.  Commercial openings can occur anywhere along the coast depending on local run timing (May–October), distribution, and stock status.  The BC fishery harvested 9.7 million salmon in 2011 and 2.9 million salmon in 2012 (DFO 2011, 2012).  Several BC salmon products are exported to the global seafood industry. Sockeye salmon are sold fresh, frozen, and as canned products. Pink salmon is sold primarily to the canned market. Pink and chum salmon are also sold whole (headed and gutted) and flaked in frozen products that may be processed in China. Markets for fresh sockeye include British Columbia, the United States, and Japan. North American and European supermarkets regularly stock canned pink and sockeye salmon on their shelves.
BC sockeye salmon became MSC certified in 2010, and pink salmon in 2011.  Three units for chum salmon were certified in January 2013, with a fourth unit still under assessment.  All certificates have open conditions, and many of the open conditions are common to all certified BC salmon fisheries.  Coho and Chinook salmon fisheries are not participating in the MSC program at this time. All five species have overlapping natural ranges such that incidental fishing of non-target salmon occurs.  There are several conditions that were not met within the timeframe required by the original MSC assessment. These outstanding conditions must be addressed by the 2013 audit.
Salmon management and related issues garnered much attention in 2012.  There was widespread public debate and concern raised regarding proposals to weaken or alter fish habitat and water protection laws, highlighted by an open letter to the Prime Minister from four former Ministers of Fisheries and Oceans.  Omnibus Bill C-38 was subsequently passed, raising concerns about weakening Canada’s fish habitat, water, environmental assessment, endangered species, and other laws.  In October, the Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River (known as the Cohen Commission) issued a final report, which included 75 recommendations to improve the future sustainability of Fraser River and other BC salmon fisheries.  The recommendations focused heavily on implementation of Canada’s 2005 Wild Salmon Policy (WSP), along with taking a much closer look at salmon aquaculture. The management agency has not yet responded to the recommendations, despite continued stakeholder pressure to do so.
Skeena River sockeye salmon returned in extremely low numbers this summer, causing concern among conservationists for the future of one of BC's largest and most diverse salmon runs. The run collapse triggered closures of commercial and recreational fisheries in BC, and triggered restrictions on First Nations' fisheries for food, social, and ceremonial purposes. It is estimated that this was the lowest spawning escapement on record. Total return of the run was below the conservation point of 400,000 fish. 

The productivity of Fraser River sockeye salmon, which is the number of adults produced per spawner, has been declining since the mid-1990s to the point where Fraser River sockeye are almost unable to replace themselves.  The total return of Fraser River sockeye in 2009 was the lowest in over 50 years.  The status of Fraser stocks for 2013 was not at crisis level as in 2009, but there was still no commercial harvest.  Final numbers are still coming in.  We will update this report when this information becomes public. Chinook salmon returned again at crises levels, with a few reports of good numbers on some individual rivers.  On a positive note, pink salmon runs in the North Coast and Fraser were abundant and there were instances of strong coho returns.

Improvement Needs
  • Complete benchmarking of all salmon Conservation Units (CUs).  Ensure status information for all CUs is publicly available.   Ensure CU status is effectively incorporated into stock groupings used for commercial fishery management, including robust recovery planning for all CUs in the “Red Zone,” i.e., below their lower benchmarks (WSP Strategy 1).
  • Develop a comprehensive and scientifically defensible system for catch reporting and compliance monitoring for target and non-target catches.
  • Provide scientifically defensible estimates of short- and long-term post-release survival of bycatch and include these estimates in management plans.
  • Provide scientifically defensible estimates of fisheries impact on non-target stocks.
  • Implement Management Reference Points for each CU to improve management transparency and accountability.
  • Implement all recommendations from the Cohen Commission final report, including:

    • Full implementation of the Wild Salmon Policy (including timelines and milestones)
    • Create a new position within the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to “champion” WSP implementation
    • Establish dedicated funding for WSP implementation
    • Remove mandate to promote salmon farming from DFO
    • Curtail salmon aquaculture production and licensing along wild salmon migration paths, and increase research.
Cohen Commission
In 2009, following three consecutive years of closure of the Fraser River sockeye salmon fishery, the Canadian government convened the Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River.  BC Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen was appointed Commissioner, hence the name the “Cohen Commission.”  Following the testimony of 179 witnesses during 138 days of hearings, along with thousands of exhibits and hundreds of public submissions, the Cohen Commission issued its final report in October 2012.  The final report identified potential contributing factors to declines in Fraser River sockeye salmon productivity and survival, and also highlighted how much is still not known.  The report was clear in recommending that DFO fully fund and implement both the 2005 Wild Salmon Policy and 1986 Habitat Policy, and that Canada take a much closer look at salmon aquaculture in BC.
Another concern raised in the Cohen Commission report concerns accuracy of fishery management statistics. Harvest monitoring and catch reporting differ among commercial, recreational, and Aboriginal sectors, as well as among gear types and areas.  Most monitoring in the commercial fishery is fisher dependent—phone-in reports and logbooks—with some independent monitoring and verification.  The Cohen Commission report presented a range of qualitative (i.e., “fair” to “quite good”) assessments of the accuracy of catch reporting offered by witnesses, and indicated that current quantitative data accuracy and breadth are unsatisfactory. Illegal harvest was also estimated at hundreds of thousands of sockeye salmon in some years. The report recommended steps including independent catch validation, stable funding for catch-monitoring programs, and enforcing penalties for non-compliance with catch reporting requirements.  Beyond the overall benefits to fisheries management of adequate harvest monitoring, expanded monitoring will help assess and quantify concerns around bycatch that have been raised around BC salmon fisheries (Moody Marine Ltd. 2010, 2011; Cohen Commission 2012; Intertek Moody Marine 2013).
Wild Salmon Policy
In 2005, Canada adopted the Wild Salmon Policy (WSP), with the goal of restoring and maintaining healthy salmon populations and their habitats for the benefit and enjoyment of the people of Canada.  The WSP was organized around four strategies:
  • Strategy 1: Standardized monitoring of wild salmon status
  • Strategy 2: Assessment of habitat status
  • Strategy 3: Inclusion of ecosystem values and monitoring
  • Strategy 4: Integrated strategic planning.
The Cohen Commission found that little progress had been made in implementing the WSP, beyond developing the methodologies needed to monitor and assess the status of salmon Conservation Units (CUs) and some habitats.
Benchmarking for sockeye salmon is nearly complete, work is underway for pink and chum salmon, and several CUs in the red zone have already been identified.  This benchmarking work must be completed as soon as possible for all species.  Results and status for all CUs should be made publicly available.  Recovery efforts should be launched immediately for red CUs, and the management system for commercial fisheries (based on aggregate stock groupings and not CUs) must become more attentive and responsive to weak components of these aggregate stock groupings through the application of Management Reference Points as directed by the MSC certification of Fraser sockeye
Sustainability Information:
Marine Stewardship Council:
BC sockeye salmon
BC pink salmon
BC chum salmon
Currently, 16 British Columbia salmon profiles for chum, coho, pink, and sockeye salmon are available on FishSource.  Profiles for Chinook salmon are forthcoming. SFP has developed a FishSource scoring methodology specifically for salmon.  Following internal and external review and assessment, the methodology was made public in January 2013.
Monterey Bay Aquarium – Seafood Watch
Coho salmon from British Columbia are rated a Good Alternative. Other commercial species have not been rated.
Canadian wild salmon are not ranked, but coho salmon roe is ranked yellow.
Blue Ocean Institute – Seafood Choices program:British Columbia chum, coho, and king (Chinook) salmon are all rated yellow. 
Cohen, B.I. 2012. Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River (Canada).
Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). 2012. Salmon Catch Statistics and Logbook Reports. Accessed online at: http://www-ops2.pac.dfo-
Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). 2011. Salmon Catch Statistics and Logbook Reports. Accessed online at:
FishSource. 2012. Salmon fishery profiles. Available online at:
Intertek Moody Marine Ltd. 2013. British Columbia chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta) fisheries, British Columbia coastal and adjacent Canadian Pacific EEZ waters: Final certification report.
Moody Marine International. 2011. British Columbia pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha) seine, troll and gillnet fishery, British Columbia coastal and adjacent Canadian Pacific EEZ waters: Final certification report.
Moody Marine International. 2010. The British Columbia Commercial Sockeye Salmon Fisheries: Final certification report.