by Aaron Hill and Stan Proboszcz
These are strange and precarious times for BC’s wild salmon populations, and their status is as complex and varied as the watersheds they inhabit. Some populations are doing well, while others are decreasing, depleted, or altogether gone.
In the trauma ward you’ll find most of the chinook populations of the Fraser River and the west coast of Vancouver Island, as well as
Thompson River steelhead, Fraser coho, chum populations of the Skeena, Nass and many other north coast rivers, and various sockeye populations across the province. And that’s just for starters.
But this autumn, you could still find rivers and streams teeming with wild salmon. Highlights included several chum salmon runs on the south coast and in the Fraser River, steelhead in the Skeena watershed, and sockeye in Barkley Sound and the Okanagan River. And thanks to painstaking rehabilitation efforts by local volunteers, salmon were repopulating some streams in southern BC that had been barren for years.
In their annual Salmon Outlook, federal fisheries scientists recently looked at 95 “stock groupings” made up of hundreds of individual spawning populations from all five salmon species. While some of their predictions were hampered by a lack of data, they estimated that next year 34 of these groupings are “expected to be of some conservation concern,” 30 are “likely to be at or above target abundance,” and “the remaining 25 have mixed outlook levels.”
Salmon in BC face an array of threats that vary in importance from river to river and species to species.
Habitat degradation is a big one – things like gravel mining from river beds, hydropower projects that block and divert rivers, damage from regressive forestry practices, acid-rock drainage from mines, and excessive water withdrawals that exacerbate lethally high water temperatures brought on by global warming – the ultimate habitat “issue” of our time. Recent gutting of provincial and federal environmental laws combined with major budget cuts for the agencies that enforce those laws has turned the clock back on salmon habitat protection by decades. Meanwhile, dozens of major projects like oil pipelines, coal-bed methane, river diversions, and acid-draining mines are slated for our watersheds.
Overfishing by commercial, recreational, and aboriginal fishermen is a problem too, but one that is slowly getting better. More persistent is the problem of inappropriate salmon hatchery practices, which pose scientifically-proven risks to wild salmon. We’re also learning more about the risks of disease and the detrimental effect salmon farms could have by introducing exotic viruses and exacerbating endemic ones. All of these challenges are made worse by ocean conditions that are increasingly unfavourable for most BC salmon populations.
It has never been more important to stand up for wild salmon. And usually when enough of us stand up, we win. Witness the recent rejections of the Morrison Lake mine and the Glacier-Howser hydro project, and the fact that the Enbridge pipeline has become political kryptonite. Moreover, many First Nations are asserting their constitutional rights in order to ensure appropriate development in their territories, some through progressive planning that places a high priority on conserving culturally important species like salmon.
A reverberating public cry resulted in the $26 million Inquiry into the Decline of Fraser River Sockeye. Justice Cohen made 75 strong recommendations, calling for the implementation of the Wild Salmon Policy, more robust habitat protection laws, a freeze on salmon farm expansion, action on climate change, and robust funding for on-the-ground fishery officers, just to name a few.
The blueprint to sustaining wild salmon has been tabled. The ball is now in our court. Public vigilance must continue to ensure that governments act meaningfully towards sustaining wild salmon for generations to come.
Aaron Hill and Stan Proboszcz are biologists with the Watershed Watch Salmon Society.