Silent Fall

B.C.'s vanishing wild salmon means trouble for all.

Monday Magazine

The silence along the river was almost deafening. No birds, bears or wolves appeared along the banks. The reason soon became obvious: not a single salmon was to be seen in the glacial-fed water. Not a single salmon carcass lay on the ground, not in the estuary or the forest. There was no sign of predation and no sign of decomposition.

The usual sounds of fall in this British Columbia coastal rainforest valley were agonizingly muted. The thrashing of salmon swimming upstream, the splashing of grizzlies pouncing on fish in the shallows, the cacophony of multiple bird species scavenging the bears’ leftovers-all were virtually nonexistent. And not a whiff of the fetid odor of dead and decaying salmon I have come to associate with this time of year was evident. The unnatural quiet sent a chill up my spine.

Having spent the latter half of September on Raincoast Conservation’s research vessel Achiever visiting salmon-producing systems on a daily basis throughout the central coast, it is abundantly clear that the new protected areas in the Great Bear Rainforest aren’t going to protect much if they are devoid of salmon. As an editorial in a local newspaper recently alluded to, unless management of the fishery improves, none of us will be eating salmon for a very long time to come-and that includes our unique coastal wolves, iconic grizzly bears and majestic killer whales. “Salmon is like the wildebeest,” explains the University of Victoria’s Dr. Tom Reimchen. “So many species depend on their movement.”

Something is amiss with salmon runs in numerous coastal watersheds, as evidenced by disturbingly low pink and chum returns the last two years; these runs of pink and chum are vital to wildlife. Depending on whose perspective you seek out, it is either attributable to poor ocean survival as a result of climate change, over-exploitation by both commercial fishing fleets and the sports-fishing industry, sea-lice infestations from fish farms, degradation of habitat from industrial forestry, or some combination thereof.

The provincial government appears to have scant interest in protecting wild salmon, as they allow their preferred constituents in the aquaculture, forest and energy industries to engage in actions that directly endanger the species or degrade their marine and freshwater habitats. The federal government isn’t much farther ahead, with fishing policies that support over-exploitation, ignore species diversity and promote fish farming. When future conditions associated with climate change-such as an increasingly harsh ocean environment-are added to these stresses, it’s no wonder wild salmon face gloomy prospects of recovery in many areas of the province.

B.C.’s wild salmon deserve better given the ecological, economic, cultural and spiritual underpinning they have provided this province. In the hundred years that we have been “managing” the Oncorhynchus genus, we have presided over the collapse of historic runs of sockeye, coho, chinook, chum and even pink salmon. The consequences impact cultures, communities, wildlife and coastal ecosystems that have evolved to depend on the food and nutrients salmon provide.

There could be a glimmer of hope in the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Wild Salmon Policy. In fact, the WSP might be the best chance to address salmon recovery that has come along in the history of DFO.

DFO’s document outlining the WSP states that “conservation of wild salmon and their habitat is the highest priority for resource management decision-making.” It goes on to explain that “this policy goal will be advanced by safeguarding the genetic diversity of wild salmon populations, maintaining habitat and ecosystem integrity, and managing fisheries for sustainable benefits.”

This commitment-that conservation must be the highest priority-represents a significant shift and may well be the only reprieve these fish have at persisting in the face of significant global and local challenges. The problem is that none of the potential benefits of the WSP will be realized until there is adequate funding for implementation. Conservation organizations have identified that DFO would need a minimum of $3 million annually to provide the staff and capacity to lead the WSP’s implementation.

Incidentally, $3 million is a drop in the bucket within the context of the current $240-billion federal budget. For example, the 2008 budget provides an additional $669 million over two years for “ensuring a cleaner, healthier environment,” yet just a paltry $2 million is designated for “promoting conservation.”

For some additional perspective, the cost of renovating and rebuilding the historic Parliament Hill buildings in Ottawa has climbed to $1 billion dollars. The Parliamentary Buildings Advisory Council states that “We cannot afford to let this central symbol of Canadian nationhood slip away. It is our duty to our ancestors, our children, and ourselves to take substantial measures to restore this special domain with its magnificent architectural heritage. We must act boldly, to restore its historic and functional integrity. If we fail, Canadians will wonder what value we have assigned to one of our critical sources of collective identity.”

The council could just as well be speaking about coastal B.C. as their language is entirely applicable to the predicament the province’s wild salmon currently face. Compared to the aforementioned $1-billion renovation, committing $3 million a year to provide some modest resources toward not letting “this central symbol of Canadian nationhood,” as embodied by our wild salmon, “slip away” would be a very prudent investment.\

While this level of funding would be a positive first step, it will not pay for gathering the information that is needed to properly manage salmon. For this, the industries that operate on our public land and waters, or impact this critical public resource, should cover the cost of monitoring and assessments which are increasingly being undertaken by NGOs and local stewardship groups. 

You can help

Raincoast’s in-house scientists, collaborating graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors make us unique among conservation groups. We work with First Nations, academic institutions, government, and other NGOs to build support and inform decisions that protect aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and the wildlife that depend on them. We conduct ethically applied, process-oriented, and hypothesis-driven research that has immediate and relevant utility for conservation deliberations and the collective body of scientific knowledge.

We investigate to understand coastal species and processes. We inform by bringing science to decision-makers and communities. We inspire action to protect wildlife and wildlife habitats.

Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.