Sockeye management in Barkley Sound is getting a much needed boost thanks to a partnership between the Uchucklesaht Nation, Uu-a-thluk, and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).

For the second year in a row, Uchucklesaht and Uu-a-thluk staff worked together to build and install a counting fence to record the numbers of salmon returning to Henderson Lake. At the same time, DFO continued collecting weekly DNA samples from the commercial fisheries and the test boat. The two programs mean for the first time, Henderson sockeye can be managed in season based on real information, not just assumptions.

 

“There wasn’t a lot of information in the past to help guide management decisions for returning Henderson sockeye,” says Uu-a-thluk Associate Biologist, Sabrina Crowley. “Other systems like the Somass have test boats and more, but the Henderson has never had all that.”

The counting fence provides much needed escapement information as Henderson sockeye return to the spawning grounds. The DNA samples track the relative abundance of Henderson sockeye in Barkley Sound and Alberni Inlet and in the sockeye fisheries. Part of an overall revamped management scheme for Barkley Sound sockeye fisheries, the two programs will improve management decisions and sustainability of the Barkley Sound sockeye fisheries for the benefit all fishers who access Barkley Sound sockeye.

With the only directed fishery for Henderson sockeye being Uchucklesaht’s harvest at the head of Uchucklesaht Inlet, the majority of Henderson sockeye are harvested incidentally, during fisheries targeting the much larger Somass run in Barkley Sound and Alberni Inlet. But the Henderson system has only 10-15% of the sockeye producing capacity when compared to the Somass system. This means that Henderson sockeye cannot sustain the levels of harvest that Somass sockeye can.

For this reason, fisheries managers need to limit the incidental catch of Henderson sockeye in all fisheries targeting Somass sockeye runs. This can be a real challenge, because Henderson sockeye returning to Barkley Sound and Alberni Inlet do not migrate directly in to Henderson Lake. Instead, they can swim up and down Alberni Inlet and Barkley Sound, mingling with Somass sockeye for several weeks before heading up Henderson River and into Henderson Lake.

To manage the harvest of the Henderson sockeye, DFO implements time and area restrictions for the commercial fisheries targeting on the more dominant Somass sockeye. In times of low Henderson sockeye abundance, these restrictions can potentially limit Nuu-chah-nulth Nations, commercial and recreational fisheries. The fence and the DNA samples allow the partners to gather catch and escapement information about the Henderson sockeye run in-season, and make management decisions that are based on accurate information.

While the implementation of the Maa-nulth Treaty in April of 2011 provided the impetus to begin actively managing Henderson sockeye, the new assessments will benefit all First Nations, along with recreational and commercial sockeye fishers. Though the DNA and test boat program have concluded for the season, the counting fence will continue to track escapement in to Henderson Lake until September.

Built of materials donated by DFO, the fence records the numbers of returning salmon using simple mechanical and electrical counters. A fisheries technician employed by Uchucklesaht checks the fence daily, recording escapement numbers, calibrating the counters, and collecting biological samples.

“It’s the timing,” Crowley says, referring to the need for in season information. “By the time you’re doing swim surveys in the fall, which is what we’ve traditionally done for Henderson, the fish have already passed through the fishing grounds and many have already been caught. There’s not much opportunity for adjustment to harvest rates at that point.”

And in-season adjustments are necessary to ensure sustainable fisheries. Some people, like Crowley, firmly believe the information gathered at Uchucklesaht’s counting fence will make a difference in the overall health of the Henderson stock. As a member of Uchucklesaht First Nation, born and raised in Kildonan, Crowley understands the importance of sound management for Henderson sockeye.

“The fence gives the nation the opportunity to manage their own fishery,” she says, “to make sure food and ceremonial needs are being met, but also to ensure that enough fish are making it back to the spawning grounds. That’s important to everyone.”