Fish tales: the collapse of BC’s wild salmon

SFU research reveals the cause for concerns

BC's lack of salmon is concerning to scientists and fishermen alike.

“Shocking,” “contentious,” and “controversial” aren’t ordinarily words you hear associated with wild salmon but the truth is the salmon runs of 2016 and 2017 have been anything but ordinary. BC salmon have been shattering records, and not in a sense that anyone is excited about.

The past two years have seen unsettlingly low returns of pink, coho, and chinook salmon while Fraser River sockeye set an all-time record with their low return in 2016. Not only has this dealt a staggering blow to BC’s economy which relies heavily on commercial fishing for salmon but the chaos and frustration following the collapse of these populations has created enormous tension between stakeholders as commercial fishing organizations, First Nations, and recreational fishermen vie for an extremely limited number of fishing openings.

As data regarding the ongoing 2017 salmon run rolls in, it is only becoming more clear that one of BC’s most iconic species is in a fight for its survival. More upsetting is the fact that we can’t seem to stop it.

Part of the problem might be that we are fighting from behind. In the early 2000s, studies began to show a distinct decline in population among Canada’s wild salmon. Acting quickly, the Canadian government started work on a new set of policies which would set out a clear mandate to all government agencies with a framework of goals and priorities to guide the management of wild salmon. These would be published in 2005 by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) as Canada’s Wild Salmon Policy which promised a “significant new approach to the conservation of one of Canada’s most cherished resources.”  

This policy was a beacon of hope to conservationists and fishermen alike who believed it marked a turning point in how we handle marine species in Canada. Their excitement was short-lived, however, as vague wording within the policy itself created changes that were slow at best and, at worst, indiscernible.  

By 2009, populations had continued to decline and the crisis facing BC’s salmon, sockeye specifically, had become undeniable. Following three consecutive years of closure for commercial fishing on the Fraser River (costing BC’s economy tens of millions of dollars) the Canadian Government had had enough and invested $37 million into the formation of the Cohen Commission an investigative team tasked with uncovering what was happening to the Pacific salmon. There was only one problem: they couldn’t.  

In 2012, the Cohen Commission report was published without an answer to its defining question. Instead, it had 75 recommendations for what needed to change in Canada’s management protocols in order to effectively monitor and manage salmon populations. At the time of publication, out of 20 deadlines outlined in the Cohen Commission recommendations, 18 have lapsed without any meaningful action.

Currently, the saga continues as SFU researchers Michael Price and John Reynolds published a study this summer in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences. They found that the number of adult salmon spawning in BC streams had actually declined since the implementation of Canada’s Wild Salmon policy. However, their study went further than simply looking at whether or not management efforts were effective.

The study, titled “Canada’s Wild Salmon Policy: an assessment of conservation progress in British Columbia,” went as far as to examine the management procedures that were creating these effects. In doing so, they may have uncovered the real problem with two specific conclusions:

  1. Monitoring levels of migrating pacific salmon are at an all-time low.
  2. There is inadequate information to determine the biological status of roughly one-half of [Pacific salmon].

The study suggests that the problem was not a case of negligent management but rather a complete lack of data and resources.  

The truth is the efforts that the DFO have made to support Pacific salmon populations since the Cohen Commission report have been enormous. Millions of dollars have been used to fund habitat enhancement and restoration for salmon-bearing streams while a wide range of partnerships with stakeholder groups attempt to spread the responsibility of monitoring salmon populations among a larger support group.  

“A decline in funding in recent years reduced general stock assessment activities delivered by [the] DFO and instead focused those activities on key species, stocks, and geographic areas,” said Lara Sloan, communications advisor for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada. “[We use] new technologies (for example, DIDSON sonar systems) as a cost-effective approach to deliver information needed to support conservation and fishery objectives.”

The unfortunate reality is that the organizations responsible for managing these salmon simply do not have the resources necessary to cope with a crisis the like what is facing the Pacific salmon today.

“The materials presented in [Price et al.’s study] are correct to my knowledge and likely a shock to those not as closely involved as I am,” said Pacific Salmon Foundation CEO Brian Riddell. “But the message that salmon assessment is under-funded is not a new message and is one that continues today . . . On a positive note, many persons have now recognized what these authors have reported and steps are being taken to correct this situation.”

It’s easy to become frustrated, as so many have, by the pattern of redundant reports and goals fallen by the wayside that litter the recent history of BC’s salmon. But, if we are going to stop the imminent collapse of the Pacific salmon, a more destructive pattern needs to be acknowledged and corrected. The pattern of research without action, policies without resources, and cries for help with no answer needs to stop.

BC stands to lose an icon deeply entrenched in our history. It’s time that we, as governments, as organizations, and as citizens move the Pacific salmon up our priority lists and ensure that effective action is being taken at every level. We need to hold our representatives in government accountable to fund the policies that they have adopted and the mandates they have laid out and ensure that the organizations tasked with managing these species on our behalf have every necessary resource to accomplish the critical mission we have entrusted to them.  

We need to take immediate, united action to save these fish before it’s too late.

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