Salmon emerged millions of years ago, evolving into six species in the Pacific Northwest. After the retreat of the glaciers, Chinook, Coho, sockeye, pink, chum and steelhead spread throughout the watersheds of what is now British Columbia, thriving in the cold, clean waters and becoming a foundation species for life on the West Coast.
Salmon have been a vital food source for First Nations since time immemorial, just as they have sustained populations of orca, grizzly bears, eagles, and other wildlife. Salmon hatch in freshwater and migrate to the ocean where they go on epic migrations before returning to spawn in their natal habitat. Equipped with an array of sensory receptors, salmon are able to find their way home by responding to light, atmospheric pressure, temperature, salinity and scent.
Pacific salmon, except for steelhead, die after spawning, in the process transferring valuable nutrients back to freshwater habitats. The bodies of spawned out salmon have nourished our great rainforests and enriched the lakes, providing food for trout and young salmon.
It is no wonder people refer to the return of salmon each year as one of nature’s great miracles.
Wild salmon are the centre of First Nations cultures across British Columbia and they continue to play an essential role both nutritionally and spiritually. Without salmon there are no community feasts.
Wild salmon have also played an important historic and ongoing role in BC’s economy. The first salmon commercially exported from the province were caught by Indigenous fishers and sold to the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Langley, in 1829. The company bought 7,544 salmon that year and 15,000 the next year. The fish were salted and shipped in barrels overseas, launching an industry that exists to this day with some $640 million in annual sales and more than 9,400 people employed in jobs related to the wild salmon fishery.
But the future of these economically important and environmentally vital species is not bright.
Overfishing, habitat damage, the effects of drugs and pesticides that have contaminated the water, and the ongoing impact of climate change have made stocks unstable. There are also concerns about how aquaculture may be transferring pathogens between farmed and wild fish and how hatcheries are impacting wild stocks by increasing competition for food and by increasing fishing pressure.
Although there have been some good spawning returns in recent decades the overall trend for most stocks is not good. The Fraser, for example, is the largest river and producer of salmon in the province, and yet it’s stocks have fallen dramatically at times, raising deep concerns.
In 2009 the Fraser’s sockeye run hit a low of 1.6 million sockeye, when nearly 10 million had been expected. In 2010 there was a big run of 28 million sockeye. But then in 2016 the Fraser collapsed again, with just 853,000 sockeye coming back to spawn – the lowest return in over 100 years.
Salmon return to spawn on different cycles (i.e. sockeye come back every four years, pinks every two) and some cycle years are naturally smaller than others. But wild swings in numbers indicate growing instability and declines over repeated years quickly lead to crisis. Some Fraser stocks, including Cultus Lake sockeye and Thompson/Chilco steelhead, are now so low in numbers they are considered endangered species.
DFO’s 2018 salmon outlook for BC states that of 91 different groupings of salmon, only 28 are “expected to be at or above the amount necessary for a healthy population.”
It is natural for salmon stocks to fluctuate in abundance over time. But it is not natural that
so many runs of salmon are failing, or that the mean size and age of some species, notably Chinook, are declining. Smaller salmon and fewer salmon are trends that British Columbians simply can’t tolerate.
Many of the problems faced by salmon exist, at least in part, because of federal fishery policies. Under the Fisheries Act, for example, licensed fish farms are allowed to deposit harmful substances directly into the ocean. This includes waste water contaminated with piscine reovirus (PRV) which is potentially fatal to wild salmon. DFO has also contributed to the decline of some stocks by allowing commercial fisheries to take place when endangered species are migrating through fishing areas. Steelhead, for example, are often accidentally killed during chum fisheries.
Our rivers should be full of wild salmon. Instead, runs are often so low that aboriginal, sport and commercial fishing opportunities are curtailed, while killer whales, grizzly bears and other species go hungry. This year for the first time DFO has proposed measures to make more Chinook salmon available as prey to an endangered population of Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW). Without salmon the SRKW, now down to just 76 individuals, could blink out.
Salmon are managed from Ottawa by the department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada. But salmon are the lifeblood of the province and BC needs to be more involved in decisions concerning this iconic species.
The current crisis facing salmon is complex but it is a problem that can and must be tackled. BC needs to have a salmon agenda – one that sets the province’s goals and priorities for wild salmon.
It is in the interest of all British Columbians that we speak out in the interest of salmon.