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Slippery Spotted Owls

Thompson Angler by Greg Gordon
I'd see them passing in the jade green mists of the lower Thompson River. Smaller fish in comparison to the comigrating sockeye and steelhead, the coho seemed driven by some primeval sense of urgency past my watchful eyes while I was perched high atop the riverbank.

Their migration appeared more purposeful and frantic than the sockeye owing, I suppose, to their size. In stark comparison to the almost lethargic progression of the large, Nicola bound steelhead, the coho were quite easy to distinguish among the many fish species present. Sadly, I haven't seen them in years.

Within the Thompson region, coho spawner escapement has plummeted from nearly 30,000 fish in 1988 to 2,020 in 1997. Plotted on a graph, this precipitous decline looks like a cliff.

The reasons are many and varied, and some, like poor ocean survival, are beyond our ability to manage. Others, like over harvest, are not.

Federal fisheries minister, David Anderson, labelled the sacrifices made last year in the name of coho conservation as "heroic". Yet, many stocks continued their slide to extinction and, in retrospect, one is compelled to ask whether those sacrifices were enough.

Recent historical southern B.C. commercial and recreational coho catch reached a high of over 3.5 million coho in 1986 and dropped dramatically to 221,375 coho last year.

According to Department of Fisheries and Oceans preliminary data, the predicted total catch of sport fishers last year was 165,358 coho. That sector saw reduced catch and possession limits as a conservation measure.

There was no directed effort by market fishers for coho, but an estimated 55,075 fish were caught as "by catch". Most commercial fisheries were required to release all incidentally captured coho, but there remains concern about the ability of coho to survive the rigours of net-and-release owing to a susceptibility for scale loss and resulting disease.

Aboriginal harvest throughout the Fraser system was limited to 284 coho.

With respect to coast wide coho concerns, many fisheries analysts are already predicting disaster within the 1998 fishing season. Clearly, coho conservation promises to be a challenge for fisheries managers, particularly considering the coincidental timing of the mega Adams sockeye run. Strong management action must be taken, however, to preserve remaining coho stocks.
Greg Gordan Email No reprinting without permission from the author.
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