Red Alert

B.C.’S wild salmon pop­u­la­tion is dwin­dling. What is go­ing wrong and why?

Canadian Wildlife - - CONTENTS - By Kerry Banks

The wild Pa­cific salmon pop­u­la­tion is dwin­dling through­out British Columbia. What is go­ing wrong and why?

THE RIVERS OF BRITISH COLUMBIA USED TO RUN RED with salmon each fall. The spawn­ing fish were so plen­ti­ful that it looked like you could walk from one stream bank to the other on their backs. Those days of stu­pen­dous abun­dance are long gone. To­day, one of Canada’s most iconic species is in a fight for its very sur­vival.

In B.C. and Yukon, 121 stocks of mi­gra­tory salmon and trout (a group of fish that spawn in close prox­im­ity to one an­other within the same species) have gone ex­tinct in the last cen­tury, mostly due to ur­ban­iza­tion and dams that elim­i­nate spawn­ing routes. An­other dozen stocks are at a high risk of ex­tinc­tion. In the U.S. states (Wash­ing­ton, Ore­gon, Idaho) more than 100 stocks are now ex­tinct, with an­other 200 at a high risk of ex­tinc­tion.

Of the five species of Pa­cific salmon — chi­nook, sock­eye, coho, pink and chum — the pop­u­la­tion of the first three are all shad­ows of their for­mer selves. Since the late-1990s, se­vere fish­ing re­stric­tions have vir­tu­ally elim­i­nated all fish­eries tar­get­ing coho and have rad­i­cally re­stricted the har­vest of chi­nook to the point where catches for these two species ac­counts for less than five per cent of the wild salmon har­vest.

TO GET A SENSE OF THE DRA­MATIC DIVE in num­bers in B.C., one need only look at the Fraser River sock­eye fish­ery, once re­garded as one of the largest in the world. Some his­to­ri­ans es­ti­mate that as many as 100 mil­lion sock­eye poured up­river at the turn of the cen­tury dur­ing the dom­i­nant runs that oc­cur ev­ery fourth year. Yet with the ex­cep­tion of 2010, when 28 mil­lion sock­eye un­ex­pect­edly re­turned, the re­turns have been dis­mal for the last decade. In 2016, the Fraser sock­eye run was a mere 856,000, the low­est since es­ti­mates be­gan in 1893. In 2017 it was only slightly bet­ter, at 1.5 mil­lion.

In re­sponse, the Com­mit­tee on the Sta­tus of En­dan­gered Wildlife in Canada stated in 2017 that Fraser River sock­eye should be listed un­der Canada’s Species at Risk Act. Ac­cord­ing to the com­mit­tee’s re­port, eight sock­eye pop­u­la­tions are en­dan­gered, two are threat­ened and five are “of spe­cial con­cern.”

Gen­er­ally, salmon are do­ing bet­ter in the north than in the south. Even so, the sock­eye run in the Skeena River, 970 kilo­me­tres north of Van­cou­ver and sec­ond only to the Fraser run in im­por­tance, has also recorded his­toric lows in re­cent years, re­sult­ing in a com­plete shut­down of recre­ational fish­ing in the wa­ter­shed. The Skeena used to av­er­age from two mil­lion to five mil­lion sock­eye an­nu­ally. To­day the run is be­tween 500,000 and 600,000.

What is caus­ing the de­cline? “Over­fish­ing, dis­ease, pathogens from fish farms, habi­tat loss, the warm­ing of the oceans. It’s death by a thou­sand cuts,” says Aaron Hill, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Wa­ter­shed Watch Salmon So­ci­ety, a sci­ence-based char­ity that ad­vo­cates for the con­ser­va­tion of B.C.’S wild salmon.

Signs of trou­ble were al­ready ev­i­dent 20 years ago, which is why in 2005 the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, af­ter five years of pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion, adopted the Wild Salmon Pol­icy, which was widely praised for giv­ing promi­nence to con­ser­va­tion in de­ci­sion-mak­ing. How­ever, many piv­otal as­pects of the pol­icy have not been put into ac­tion. “Leg­is­la­tion has been slow and woe­fully inadequate,” says Hill. “There has been a lack of po­lit­i­cal will to make it a re­al­ity.”

The cre­ation of dams and the in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion of fish­ing cer­tainly di­min­ished the once ma­jes­tic salmon runs, but gaug­ing the fac­tors in­volved to­day is prob­lem­atic. Salmon are dif­fi­cult to study be­cause they move through very dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ments dur­ing their life cy­cle, from fresh wa­ter to salt wa­ter and back again to fresh wa­ter. And the years they spend in the ocean are still a mys­tery to sci­en­tists. “Any­thing that hap­pens along the coast and any­thing that goes on in the open ocean is like a big black box that we can’t see into,” says Scott Hinch, a pro­fes­sor of aquatic ecol­ogy and fish con­ser­va­tion at the Univer­sity of British Columbia.

Yet de­spite the un­cer­tainty about what goes on in the open sea, a few key themes are emerg­ing that may help ex­plain what is hap­pen­ing to Pa­cific salmon.

A cen­tury ago, the Fraser River sock­eye fish­ery was one of the largest in the world, with 100 mil­lion fish head­ing up­stream each year. In 2016, the an­nual run was 856,000


When asked to pin­point the num­ber one threat to salmon to­day, most ex­perts of­fer the same re­ply. “Cli­mate change is the most se­ri­ous threat. It’s ob­vi­ous,” says Hinch. “Tem­per­a­tures have gone up by two de­grees in the Fraser River. The oceans are warm­ing, and there is greater acid­i­fi­ca­tion. Some salmon pop­u­la­tions can’t tol­er­ate higher tem­per­a­tures.”

Higher wa­ter tem­per­a­tures im­pair the sur­vival rate of young salmon on their way to the sea and again when they re­turn to spawn. “We call it the master fac­tor,” says Hinch. Even just a cou­ple of de­grees can prove lethal. Dur­ing the fall sock­eye run of 2016, the tem­per­a­ture in the Fraser River was 20.6 C, 2.5 de­grees higher than nor­mal at that time of year.

Re­search has shown that the swim­ming per­for­mance of mi­grat­ing salmon weak­ens when wa­ter tem­per­a­ture hits 18 de­grees C. Warmer tem­per­a­tures in­crease a fish’s me­tab­o­lism, caus­ing it to burn es­sen­tial fuel at a faster rate, and warmer wa­ter also con­tains less oxy­gen. On their re­turn from the sea, the salmon are not eat­ing and are al­ready ex­hausted as they fight through the rapids. In warm wa­ter, many sim­ply won’t have the en­ergy to reach the spawn­ing grounds.

The sit­u­a­tion was re­cently ex­ac­er­bated by a warm area of wa­ter in the North­west Pa­cific dubbed “the Blob” which ap­peared in 2013 and re­mained for three years. Warm ocean tem­per­a­tures de­plete plank­ton food sup­plies and re­sult in many ju­ve­nile salmon be­ing de­voured by in­vad­ing preda­tors, such as mack­erel and sharks com­ing up from far­ther south.

Hinch ex­pects salmon will start to shift north­ward in re­ac­tion to ris­ing tem­per­a­tures. “Just within the last decade, we have seen chi­nook and chum salmon ap­pear in the Macken­zie River in the Arc­tic for the first time,” he says.


In a bid to com­pen­sate for the im­pact of over­har­vest­ing and habi­tat loss, fish­eries on the Pa­cific rim be­gan to prop­a­gate salmon in hatch­eries to bol­ster de­clin­ing wild stocks, a strat­egy that one of­fi­cer with the De­part­ment of Fish­eries and Oceans likened to “chemo­ther­apy for the rivers.” Hatch­eries have pro­duced more salmon, but like chemo­ther­apy there have been se­ri­ous side ef­fects. Ac­cord­ing to a 2010 study in the jour­nal Marine and Coastal Fish­eries, the North Pa­cific is now “over­crowded with salmon and dou­ble what it was 50 years ago,” a find­ing that runs counter to most ob­ser­va­tions about salmon pop­u­la­tions. “We’re see­ing more to­tal salmon now than we’ve ever seen be­fore,” says Ran­dall Peter­man, a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of bi­o­log­i­cal sciences at Si­mon Fraser Univer­sity and one of the study’s au­thors.

Hatch­eries in Ja­pan, Rus­sia and Alaska are now pump­ing out as­tound­ing amounts of salmon, as many as five bil­lion a year, a huge jump from 1970 when 500 mil­lion were set free. About 90 per cent of these hatch­ery fish are pink or chum, the most com­mon of the five species of Pa­cific salmon. In fact, a third of all the salmon har­vested in Alaska, a whop­ping 58 mil­lion of them, are what is known in the in­dus­try as “hatch and catch” — salmon that be­gan life in fresh­wa­ter tanks in one of the state’s 31 hatch­ery fa­cil­i­ties. Ac­cord­ing to Peter­man, these fish get out into the ocean and gob­ble up smaller fish, krill and other prey, re­duc­ing food sup­plies in the North Pa­cific be­fore the ar­rival of the threat­ened wild runs that mi­grate here from south­ern lat­i­tudes.

In this evo­lu­tion­ary free-for-all, pinks have a dis­tinct edge be­cause they are hard-wired to eat a lot and grow fast. Their two-year life cy­cle — other salmon have

four- to seven-year cy­cles — means they have faster gen­er­a­tion times and deal more read­ily with en­vi­ron­men­tal changes. They hatch in the spring, move to the ocean as fry the same year, over­win­ter there, eat like glut­tons and re­turn home to spawn the next fall. In con­trast, chi­nook, sock­eye and coho spend more time in rivers where they are vul­ner­a­ble to a host of dan­gers, in­clud­ing dams, in­dus­trial pol­lu­tion, a sketchier food supply and higher wa­ter tem­per­a­tures. An­other un­wanted con­se­quence of the hatch­ery hordes is the stray­ing of these “ocean ranched” salmon into wild salmon streams where they breed with wild stock. Says Peter­man: “It de­grades the fit­ness of the wild pop­u­la­tion. Wild salmon have a great deal of ge­netic diver­sity that en­ables them to re­spond to a va­ri­ety of sit­u­a­tions. Hatch­ery salmon have an im­pov­er­ished ge­netic diver­sity. The sur­vival rate of hatch­ery raised salmon is half that of wild salmon.” As well, the off­spring of these fish may not have the “hom­ing guid­ance sys­tem” of wild salmon. If in­ter­breed­ing hap­pens of­ten enough, the ge­netic makeup of the wild stock may be al­tered, threat­en­ing its vi­a­bil­ity.


Fish­eries and Oceans Canada (DFO), the de­part­ment re­spon­si­ble for salmon man­age­ment, can’t be blamed for global warm­ing, but ac­cord­ing to a 2017 study in the Cana­dian Jour­nal of Fish­eries and Aquatic Sciences, the de­part­ment does get a fail­ing grade for its mon­i­tor­ing ef­forts. The study notes that the num­ber of streams be­ing mon­i­tored by DFO on B.C.’S north and cen­tral coasts dropped dra­mat­i­cally from 1,533 streams in the mid-1980s to an all-time low of 476 streams in 2014 — a 70 per cent re­duc­tion. “As a re­sult, we’re now only able to as­sess half of wild salmon pop­u­la­tions,” says one of the study’s au­thors, SFU fish­eries bi­ol­o­gist Michael Price.

The process of mon­i­tor­ing spawn­ing streams pro­vides vi­tal in­for­ma­tion on trends over time. With­out such data, fish­eries may con­tinue to catch di­min­ished pop­u­la­tions. “In the past, mon­i­tor­ing was done by in­di­vid­u­als who had been do­ing this job year af­ter year for decades,” ex­plains Price. “They would walk the en­tire sys­tem count­ing fish. These peo­ple are re­tir­ing and are not be­ing re­placed. Fish­ery of­fi­cials used to make de­ci­sions in real time ac­cord­ing to what these peo­ple told them. Now it’s all based on what hap­pened last year.”

A roll­back in mon­i­tor­ing is not the only area in which the de­part­ment has come un­der fire. Crit­ics see a clear con­flict of in­ter­est in DFO’S man­date to reg­u­late the salmon-farm­ing in­dus­try while it also pro­motes the in­dus­try and its prod­ucts as de­bate rages about the po­ten­tially harm­ful ef­fects of fish farms on wild stocks.


Many con­ser­va­tion groups and First Na­tions fear that pathogens and sea lice are spread­ing from B.C.’S open-penned fish farms and in­fect­ing wild stock, es­pe­cially in the Broughton Ar­chi­pel­ago on the north­east­ern tip of Van­cou­ver Is­land where salmon pass through a bot­tle­neck en route to the open sea. There is also con­cern about At­lantic salmon es­cap­ing and com­pet­ing with na­tive species. One such jail­break oc­curred in 2017, when high tides and cur­rents

caused pens to im­plode, re­leas­ing 300,000 fish from a Wash­ing­ton state farm near the Cana­dian bor­der.

Ac­cord­ing to DFO’S own data, At­lantic salmon have been found in 81 B.C. rivers and streams. How­ever, By­ron An­dres, the de­part­ment’s se­nior bi­ol­o­gist with aqua­cul­ture en­vi­ron­men­tal op­er­a­tions, says there is no ev­i­dence of farmed salmon in­ter­breed­ing with Pa­cific salmon or be­com­ing es­tab­lished in B.C. wa­ter­ways.

The ques­tion of what kind of neg­a­tive im­pact fish farms may be hav­ing on wild salmon stocks re­mains un­re­solved, but there is no deny­ing their eco­nomic im­pact. There are now 120 fish farms, hold­ing 1.3 mil­lion fish, 90 per cent of which are At­lantic salmon. Vir­tu­ally all these en­ter­prises are Nor­we­gian-owned, and most of the har­vest is shipped over­seas. In fact, farmed At­lantic salmon is now B.C.’S top seafood ex­port, val­ued at about $525 mil­lion per year.

The sit­u­a­tion is a com­plete re­ver­sal from 30 years ago. In 1990, there were 18,000 tonnes of farmed salmon pro­duced in B.C. and 100,000 tonnes of wild salmon har­vested. To­day, farmed salmon pro­duc­tion is up to 80,000 tonnes, while the wild salmon har­vest is down around 20,000 tonnes.

In June 2018, the B.C. gov­ern­ment in­tro­duced new rules that may change the way salmon farm­ing is done in the prov­ince. To get their fish farm li­cences re­newed, com­pa­nies will need to ob­tain con­sent from lo­cal First Na­tions, and DFO must also cer­tify that the op­er­a­tion will pose no risk to wild salmon stocks. How­ever, these rules won’t take ef­fect un­til 2022, re­port­edly be­cause most of the sites have fed­eral li­cences that won’t ex­pire un­til 2022. Adam Olsen of B.C.’S Green Party slammed the de­layed time frame. “It’s like sur­geons an­nounc­ing that start­ing in 2022 they are go­ing to start wash­ing their hands be­fore pro­ce­dures. This should have been the stan­dard all along.”


Of course, the loss of wild stocks is much more than sim­ply an eco­nomic ques­tion. Salmon are a key­note species, es­sen­tial to the health of the ecosys­tem. When they die, their rot­ting bod­ies re­turn valu­able nu­tri­ents to river sys­tems, and supply food for other an­i­mals and ni­tro­gen for the soil. As David Mont­gomery writes in his book King of Fish, “Up to a third of the ni­tro­gen in val­ley-bot­tom forests swam up the river as a fish. Trees grow­ing along salmon-bear­ing streams grow up to three times faster than those grow­ing along salmon-free streams.”

In the midst of this mood of spi­ralling doom, one looks for signs of op­ti­mism. Hope be­gins with the fish it­self — it’s a re­silient species that evolves quickly, pro­duces a mul­ti­tude of off­spring and main­tains a diver­sity of pop­u­la­tions. Ev­i­dence of how salmon can re­bound with the proper sup­port is clear in the re­vi­tal­iza­tion of lost salmon streams such as Van­cou­ver’s se­verely pol­luted Still Creek, which saw a mirac­u­lous re­turn of salmon for the first time in nearly 80 years in 2012. It has con­tin­ued to host a salmon run each year since.

There is also the in­spir­ing story of Okana­gan sock­eye. In the mid-1990s, this pop­u­la­tion, which must nav­i­gate past nine dams to reach its spawn­ing grounds in the B.C. In­te­rior, was near ex­tinc­tion. But thanks to the ef­forts of a coali­tion of groups, the sock­eye are back with a bang. In fact, there are now so many sock­eye in Okana­gan Lake that DFO was re­cently able to open up a recre­ational fish­ery. There had never been one here be­fore.

On a strate­gic level, Michael Price would like to see a tran­si­tion away from ocean mixed-stock com­mer­cial fish­eries that catch salmon near a river’s mouth to­ward ter­mi­nal fish­eries that catch the fish closer to their spawn­ing stream. “In­ter­est­ingly, this was the sys­tem that had been used for sev­eral thou­sand years by First Na­tions on B.C.’S coast. We need to learn from the past if we want to be sus­tain­able in the fu­ture,” says Price. “This ap­proach al­lows us to tar­get only those pop­u­la­tions con­sid­ered abun­dant and en­ables de­pressed pop­u­la­tions to es­cape fish­eries and spawn in their natal streams.”

Aaron Hill be­lieves the build­ing blocks for a salmon re­cov­ery are in place. “We have a strong Wild Salmon Pol­icy; we have an ex­cel­lent Wa­ter Sus­tain­abil­ity Act and an im­proved new Fish­eries Act. We need to get politi­cians to live up to the laws and reg­u­la­tions that are al­ready on the books and re­store lost pro­tec­tions.”

If hope for re­cov­ery starts with salmon, it ul­ti­mately ends with peo­ple. From pub­lic sur­veys his or­ga­ni­za­tion has un­der­taken, Hill is con­vinced there is keen pub­lic sup­port for im­prov­ing the man­age­ment of salmon. “Peo­ple want salmon to be around be­cause they feel they are an in­te­gral part of our cul­tural iden­tity. Where there is a will, there is a way.”a

Left, sock­eye swarm the Adams River. Right, on the Skeena River at the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury

The up­river salmon mi­gra­tion is one of na­ture’s most ex­cit­ing dra­mas, but it is also a long, stren­u­ous, des­per­ate race against time with ev­ery ob­sta­cle tak­ing its toll. For ev­ery 1,000 eggs a salmon lays, only one salmon will sur­vive and re­turn to its spawn­ing grounds. Chum salmon (On­corhynchus keta) eggs and alevins The exc­reta from some large salmon fish farms are es­ti­mated to equal the sewage pro­duced by a city of 10,000 peo­ple.

Purse-seine fish­ing for salmon, Clay­oquot Sound, Van­cou­ver Is­land, British Columbia Salmon are now get­ting smaller, a side ef­fect of a long-term lack of reg­u­la­tion by the gov­ern­ment on net size and a de­lib­er­ate tar­get­ing of the big­gest spec­i­mens by fish­er­men. The re­sult is the skew­ing of genetics in favour of smaller fish.

Salmon are vi­tal in the food chain, with 137 species re­ly­ing on them as part of their diet. Much like a ca­nary in a coal mine, salmon play a key role as a biosen­sor: their health is an in­di­ca­tor of gen­eral ecosys­tem vi­tal­ity.

Griz­zly bear mother and a first-year cub feed­ing on salmon in the CSHEILPCO+TION,CBT.C2.018

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