Conservation | Where have all the salmon gone?

By Melissa Chaun –

It has been eerily quiet on the Lower Fraser River this year. Not a single fishing boat to be seen. At the time of writing this, the commercial salmon fishery had yet to open this season and likely never will. There are simply not enough salmon. Even the Musqueam Indian Band, hosting the final wild salmon feast celebration for the Rivershed Society of BCs (RSBC’s) FraserFEST event on August 12, were unsure until the day before whether the menu could feature wild salmon.

Adams River salmon run, September 2010. Photo: Flikr.com KSI Photography

Adams River salmon run, September 2010. Photo: Flikr.com KSI Photography

Yes, it’s that bad.

Fish farms, sea lice, over-fishing, habitat destruction, climate change (warmer ocean temperatures, low stream flows), and ocean acidification are some of the concerns identified by scientists and conservation groups like RSBC that are working for the long-term survival of these keynote species.

There is also a lesser-discussed issue – genetically modified (GM) salmon – that could pose an additional threat in the future. As reported in TheGreenGazette article, “GMO Salmon” by Erin Hitchcock in September 2015 (www.thegreengazette.ca/gmo-salmon), AquaBounty has created GM Atlantic salmon eggs, containing spliced genes from Chinook and the eel-like pout, capable of producing salmon that can grow twice as quickly.

And just when we think it can’t get worse, a Canadian-owned fish farm in Washington State’s San Juan Islands capsized on August 20, sending more than 50 per cent of its 305,000 captive Atlantic salmon into the ocean. As reported in The Seattle Times, Cooke Aquaculture Pacific (Cook Aquaculture) is the largest producer of Atlantic salmon in North America and operates fish farms in Chile, Spain, Scotland, Atlantic Canada, and Maine. (Many of these countries, including Norway, have documented aquaculture-related viruses and their threat to wild salmon stocks.) The New Brunswick-based global seafood giant knew its newly acquired Cypress Island fish farm was in dire need of upgrades and yet chose to wait until after harvest to address the problem.

First Nations up and down the West Coast have been sounding the alarm for decades. Most recently, the Heiltsuk First Nation moved to occupy a Marine Harvest fish farm near Alert Bay, followed by the Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw First Nation. On August 27, members of the Shishalh Nation reported three Atlantic salmon in their Sabine Channel nets near Sechelt. Although not marked, these fish likely came from the Cooke spill, 80 nautical miles away. Two of the fish were females, full of eggs.

Sockeye salmon Adams River 2006. Photo: Charlotte Kinzie www.flickr.com/photos/ckinzie/270702782/

Sockeye salmon Adams River 2006. Photo: Charlotte Kinzie www.flickr.com/photos/ckinzie/270702782/

Then there’s Mount Polley. August 4 marked the third anniversary of the disastrous Imperial Metals’ tailings pond failure. To date, our provincial government has failed to levy a single fine against the company for contaminating the Quesnel Lake ecosystem with its toxic mining wastes. Furthermore, Mount Polley has been allowed to continue operations and before Christy Clark left office, her government quietly granted Imperial Metals another mining permit.

Finally, there’s our federal government’s failure to implement the 75 Cohen Inquiry recommendations on BC/Fraser River salmon recovery, despite spending over 37 (not the reported 26) million dollars of taxpayer’s money to report on the crisis back in 2012.

Last month, our friends at Watershed Watch Salmon Society released their Mid-Season BC Salmon Update. A key finding is that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), in the face of accumulating evidence of poor coast-wide returns and escapements, is keeping (ocean) fisheries open, knowing many populations are being overfished.

On the contrary, Alaska’s Department of Fish & Game issued an emergency order on August 7, closing all Southeast Alaska’s recreational and commercial fisheries targeting chinook to protect chinook returning to BC, Washington, and Oregon.

The emergency order read:

“Southeast Alaska and British Columbia stocks are experiencing historically low production; many of the affected stocks will not meet escapement goals or management objectives in 2017.

Dead salmon on the Harrison River. Photo: Melissa Chaun

Dead salmon on the Harrison River. Photo: Melissa Chaun

The… data… cannot be ignored when conservation of wild stocks is the foundation of the Alaska Sustainable Salmon Fisheries Policy and the Pacific Salmon Treaty. Therefore, it is imperative that Alaska offer relief now for these stocks, with a focus on protecting future production.”

The DFO has failed to take similar direct coast-wide action to protect BC’s wild chinook salmon, despite First Nations’ ongoing legal action. Moreover, last year, the DFO monitored fewer BC salmon streams than at any other time in the department’s history since WWII.

However, we can all do something to protect wild salmon and ensure they make it back to their spawning grounds. Now, more than ever, they need our support. Please consider the following list of actions and add your voice to make sure that wild salmon continue their journey home.

What you and I can do:

  1. Avoid farmed salmon. Do not purchase or consume aquacultured Atlantic salmon. There are numerous documented human and environmental health effects, as clearly shared by the Wild Salmon Defenders Alliance (www.wsda.ca). If your favourite sushi place has farmed salmon on the menu, engage the manager/owner to no longer feature this product.

  2. Encourage your mayor and council to declare your municipality a ‘Wild Salmon Only Zone.’

  3. Support Dr. Alexandra Morton and the Sea Shepherd Society’s Operation Virus Hunter II campaign to eradicate open net fish farms from BC waters (www.seashepherd.org/virus-hunter/about/operation-virus-hunter.html).

  4. Write to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Dominic LeBlanc, and copy your MP. Implore them to put a stop to the overfishing of BC’s wild salmon. Ask that DFO’s Conservation & Protection Division have the resources and political will to effectively monitor and enforce compliance with commercial fishing regulations.

  5. Join West Coast Environmental Law in protecting our waterways by writing a letter to your local media. In 2016, the government announced a review of federal environmental laws, including the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Fisheries Act, and the Navigation Protection Act (NPA). Originally known as the Navigable Waters Protection Act, the NPA excludes 99 per cent of Canada’s waterways from protection. This is a unique, once-in-a-generation opportunity for us to re-strengthen the laws that protect our land, air, and water and ensure they help Canada address climate change. Tell your local newspaper the Navigation Protection Act must: a) ensure full legal protection for navigable waters; b) protect the public’s right to navigate waterways; and, c) restore environmental assessments for waterways (www.getnparight.eco/wcel/).

  6. Join Amnesty International’s action calling for a public inquiry into BC’s mining laws in the wake of Mount Polley. Consider financially supporting the Concerned Citizens of Quesnel Lake’s GoFundMe campaign to take legal action regarding Mount Polley (www.ccql.ca).

  7. Lend your voice to the Rivershed Society of BC efforts to conserve, protect, and restore the world-famous salmon-producing Fraser River–take RSBC’s Watershed Pledge at http://rivershed.com/watershedpledge/.

Melissa Chaun of Port Moody is an ecologist with a passion for all things sustainable. She is events co-ordinator with the Rivershed Society of BC, volunteers on various city committees, and co-ordinates the monthly meetings for Tri-City Greendrinks.

Note: Portions of this article appeared in Melissa Chaun’s Sept 7, 2017 column in Tri City News, “Living Green: Where are all of British Columbia’s salmon?” (http://www.tricitynews.com/lifestyles/living-green-where-are-all-of-british-columbia-s-salmon-1.22517327). Republished with permission from the author.

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