Throughout the 1970’s and 80’s, 30,000 sockeye bound to spawn in the Atnarko river in Nuxalk territory were caught each year by Indigenous, recreational and commercial fishermen. 30,000 more made it past the fishermen to spawn. All these fish helped to sustain Nuxalk culture, local economies, and ecosystems alike. Then in the 1990’s Atnarko sockeye collapsed and have not recovered.
In response to the impacts on local people and ecosystems, a recovery plan was written in 2016 by the Nuxalk Nation in collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). The recovery plan compiled all the available information on Atnarko sockeye, the potential factors limiting recovery and identified actions to revitalize the population. Incidental catches of Atnarko sockeye (fish caught during mixed-stock fisheries that contain fish from numerous populations), were identified as one factor that warranted further investigation. In response, the Nuxalk Nation initiated a study to address the impact of incidental catches and, in the fall of 2019, a new collaborative research paper was published in Marine and Coastal Fisheries.
Among other findings, the authors found the population has potential to recover if a sufficient number of fish make it to the spawning grounds. For example, no Atnarko sockeye were harvested, there would be about a 69% chance of reaching the recovery goal of 15,000 spawners in the Atnarko river within four generations. However, at current rates of harvest there is only a 50-60% chance of meeting the recovery goal, with chances of success dwindling below 50% if harvests rates increase. While there are many other factors contributing to the recovery potential of Atnarko sockeye, these results indicate the importance of mitigating incidental harvest rates effectively.
“Our study [of Atnarko sockeye] highlights collaborative research initiated and directed by the Nuxalk Nation to promote the recovery of a depressed stock that is inherent to traditional foods, thereby contributing to a global effort to integrate Indigenous cultural values with biological conservation.”
The authors of the paper include Brendan Connors from DFO, William Atlas from Simon Fraser University, Megan and Jason Moody from the Nuxalk Nation and CCIRA’s Science Coordinator Alejandro Frid.
The paper is noteworthy for the for its scientific contributions on the impact of incidental catches on recovery of a depleted salmon populations. But as, as the authors write, it also stands as an example of collaborative scientific research instigated and directed by a First Nation to help recovery a depleted salmon population that is an important to local Indigenous culture. The paper, they write, is “contributing to a global effort to integrate Indigenous cultural values with biological conservation.”