Volunteers fin clipping salmon smolts. Photo by Howard English Hatchery.
Volunteers fin clipping salmon smolts. Photo by Howard English Hatchery.

Mark Selective Fisheries

Can this technique save BC salmon?

What Is a Mark Selective Fishery?

Mark selective fisheries (MSF) are becoming more common. In fact, just south of us mark selective fisheries were mandated into law in Washington State about a decade ago, meant to be a tool to improve chinook and coho salmon recovery and to allow important fisheries to sustain themselves during periods of low wild salmon abundances.

Basically a MSF requires two components: Hatcheries and applying an identifying mark on hatchery salmon.


This allows anglers, commercial fishers and First Nations fishermen to differentiate a hatchery salmon from an unmarked wild salmon. Hatchery salmon can be retained and wild salmon must be released. In Washington State nearly 100 percent of hatchery produced chinook and coho have their adipose fin clipped, making hatchery fish easy to identify. There are some exceptions for hatchery fish that are used for other purposes, like science, or are too valuable for stock recovery to allow any harvest. These fish do not have an adipose fin clip, but may have a different mark or carry a special tag.

Canada also removes the adipose fin and attaches other special purpose marks including coded wire tags (CWTs). This tag is inserted into a juvenile salmon’s head and is used for stock identification purposes. When adipose clipped salmon are caught by anglers the heads are turned in at CWT recovery depots. Commercially caught adipose clipped salmon heads are collected at processing facilities. The issue is that currently Canada only clips between 10 to 15 percent of hatchery salmon.

During healthy periods of wild chinook and coho stock abundance this low mark rate is not an issue. However, wild chinook and coho escapements have declined in the last two decade, most notably for middle and upper Fraser River stocks. This has led to severe management measures that have closed important fisheries or, in the case of South Coast recreational chinook fisheries, created large and lengthy time based chinook non-retention measures.


The problem is there are substantial abundances of chinook salmon in many fishing areas as a consequence of US and Canadian hatchery production. Most Canadian hatchery chinook cannot be retained because 80 to 90 percent of them do not have a clipped adipose fin, so these unmarked salmon are basically masquerading as wild salmon.

Can Marked Chinook Hatchery Production Be Kept?

This is the inexplicable conundrum. Canadian anglers can keep hatchery marked coho, but they are not permitted to keep hatchery marked chinook even though in certain areas of southern BC the hatchery mark proportion of the total pool of salmon varies from 40 to 80 percent. Consequently, anglers are now forced to release hatchery chinook, many of which have been paid for by Canadians either directly by the federal Government from taxes, or by money raised from volunteers, businesses and organizations that support salmon recovery.

For example, the South Vancouver Island Anglers Coalition has self-funded a program in Sooke Harbour to rear additional chinook for Southern Resident Killer Whale recovery, to increase angling opportunity and to provide additional chinook for local First Nation’s harvest. In five years, the not-for-profit organization raised $375,000 to sustain the project. Revenues cover the cost of adipose fin clips and CWT implants, feed, transport from the hatchery, hydro and labour charged by the federal hatchery which provides the chinook smolts.


Why Don’t We Have Chinook Mark Selective Fishing?

It is due to politics, agendas, opposition from groups who do not like recreational angling and don’t like hatcheries, and a federal Department of Fisheries that has mastered the art of delaying decision making. Each reason would qualify for a stand-alone opinion piece or article, but for the sake of space considerations here are the significant pros and cons of marked selective fishing.

The Cons

Incidental Release Mortality:

  • There is concern that releasing unmarked wild salmon produces excessively high mortality rates. This position has been promoted by those who do not like recreational angling. Claims of very high mortality rates, as much as 50 percent or more, still persist.
  • The current accepted incidental mortality rates are based on peer reviewed work done by the Pacific Biological Station’s Terry Gjernes in the 1980s and ‘90s. His research established rates of 10 to 15 percent for coho salmon and 15 to 20 percent for chinook. The Canada/US Pacific Salmon Commission’s Chinook Technical Committee uses a 20 percent incidental mortality rate.
  • The argument against these rates is that they do not account for mortalities that may occur after salmon have been released. This is based on the premise that many released salmon die later or fall prey to predators because of their injuries.
  • There is currently a multi-year UBC study that uses tags attached to recreationally caught and released salmon. These tags are scanned as salmon pass over a series of underwater arrays while migrating towards their hatcheries of origin. The data from this study should provide updated and credible answers that will tone down the release mortality rate debate.

Anglers are too unskilled to release salmon properly:

  • It is a common opinion that anglers do not know how to handle and release salmon properly. For example, anglers are too rough, they keep them out of the water too long, they remove protective slime and scales and they don’t wait long enough for the fish to recover. This repetitive claim appeared in a recent blog by Watershed Watch Salmon Society’s campaign manager. Based on observations during a fishing trip he concluded that all released juvenile salmon would not survive to make it to the rivers and spawn. These claims are baseless and only further confuse the public about a complex issue. The Gjernes mortality study accounted for this by using anglers of all skill levels to arrive at mortality rates. His research also determined that the mortality rate is higher in smaller salmon but decreases as size increases.

Hatcheries must go:

  • The hatchery debate has intensified as salmon stocks declined. In simple terms, hatchery opponents often state that, ‘if we just remove hatcheries and stop fishing, salmon will recover on their own.’ Hatcheries do have problems. In their 150-year existence they have upset salmon stocks genetic integrity, they have probably released too many fish for the receiving waters to handle, potentially causing competition with wild stocks; some hatchery facilities produce chronically low salmon survival rates leading to the assumption that hatchery fish are genetically inferior; and initial commercial greed and lack of knowledge drove a flawed belief that hatcheries could replace wild salmon.
  • Most everyone who has anything to do with salmon would agree that in a perfect world hatcheries would not be needed. However, we are far from a perfect world and it’s getting worse.
  • That viewpoint is concisely explained in a 2021 Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife assessment of Puget Sound chinook where hatcheries have dominated salmon production for decades. In explaining the value of MSF the document concludes that MSF and hatcheries, while not reversing the decline of Puget Sound wild chinook and coho, have slowed the rate of decline. It goes on to report that the biggest impediment to wild salmon recovery has and continues to be critical spawning and rearing habitat loss.
  • The good news is that hatchery technology has vastly improved in recent years through developing protocols designed to mimic natural salmon production as closely as possible.

The Pros

  • MSF allows anglers to easily identify wild from hatchery salmon. This means more wild salmon are released rather than kept leading to increased wild escapements. There are caveats to this: There needs to be a high proportion of hatchery fish in the fishing area; anglers need to shift their expectations to lower daily bag limits; anglers need to stop fishing once those limits are reached and anglers need to up their salmon release skills. (See this month’s Tom’s Tip).
  • MSF moves the management needle closer to achieving the government’s mandate of conserving salmon while permitting data supported fisheries to proceed where possible.
  • It is consistent with developing modern fish trap technologies that are currently being tested on the Harrison and Skeena rivers by First Nations. This concept is supported by recreational angling interests, because fin clipping provides the same benefits to large scale terminal and in-river fisheries as they do for anglers fishing from small boats.
  • Another example of selective fishing development is being done by retired DFO biologist Brian Tutty. He has designed a salmon release device for anglers that he believes will improve the survival rate for released salmon. It’s based on the same concept as rockfish ‘descender devices’ that are now mandatory for rockfish angling.
  • Fin clipping allows hatchery managers and volunteers to separate hatchery fish from wild fish. This reduces the likelihood that hatchery fish will spawn naturally and further dilute genetic integrity.
  • It provides additional opportunities for First Nations to conduct fisheries that would otherwise be closed.

The big unknown about the future of salmon, aside from climate warming, is whether all levels of government are finally going to take salmon spawning and rearing habitat protection seriously. To date they deserve an F grade. This failure starts at the top and must be acknowledged, identified and addressed. Habitat loss is the principle reason that evolving hatchery technology and strategies, like MSF, have a vital role to play in salmon recovery.

Tom’s Tip

Release Them Right

  • Get the salmon to the boat quickly but carefully.
  • Release it without bringing it aboard. Long nose pliers are an efficient tool for removing hooks.
  • If you must hold the fish, purchase special fish handling gloves or wet your hands.
  • Replace your existing net mesh with a soft mesh. Stiff mesh tears through tail and dorsal fins.
  • Remove the hooks as fast as possible (in seconds not minutes).
  • Forget the pictures, except to photograph the fish as its being marinas and facilities for mariners boating in the Pacific North released into the water.
  • Use the smallest hooks possible. Large hooks do significant damage, particularly in the eye and brain region. Small barbless hooks have shorter point lengths and do not penetrate flesh as deeply.
  • Make sure the fish has recovered adequately before release. If you are unsure put it in the water facing the current and hold it gently ahead of the tail fin until it begins to wiggle. Then release it.
  • If you release a fish and it’s not moving reach down and gently tap its tail. If this doesn’t work repeat the previous bullet.

This article was featured in Pacific Yachting's September 2022 issue. Order it from our Shopify store now (while supplies last) or subscribe to our magazine to keep up-to-date with all of the latest issues!

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