Silent Fall and Ghost Runs

Dec 11, 2008
By Chris Genovali

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 stated recently: 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.’

It’s not only the Great Bear Rainforest, 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.

BC’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 \’91managing’ 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 (WPS). 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 \’91conservation of wild salmon and their habitat is the highest priority for resource management decision-making.’ It goes on to explain that \’91this 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 \’91ensuring 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.

Ghost Runs:
In December, the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences published the Raincoast Conservation Foundation’s findings on the status and monitoring of BC’s wild salmon. The article, Ghost Runs: Management and status assessment of Pacific salmon returning to British Columbia’s central and north coasts, focused on 215 salmon runs (of more than 2500), where Fisheries and Oceans Canada routinely monitor returns.

Their findings suggest that the monitoring and status of salmon returns are inadequate to conserve salmon on Canada’s west coast. Since 1950, salmon runs met their target escapements 50% of the time at best. During 2000-2005, spawning chum, sockeye, and Chinook failed to meet target escapements by 67%, 70% and 85%, respectively. (Escapement is the number of salmon that reach the spawning grounds after escaping the commercial and recreational fishing fleets.) ’91Returns of coho salmon did improve during this recent period, however,’ said Raincoast biologist and lead author Michael Price, ‘This improvement indicates the success of DFO’s fishing closures for coho in the 1990s.’

Of equal concern is the decline in the number of streams monitored by DFO. The 215 monitored streams declined to just 137 by 2005, representing only 5% of all salmon runs on the central and north coasts. \’91This loss and lack of information makes it very difficult to conserve salmon,’ said Raincoast biologist and co-author Misty MacDuffee. \’91Importantly, the unmonitored runs tend to be small streams, which are the most ecologically important for bears and coastal wildlife, and their declines or disappearances go un-noticed.’

A third finding showed that as salmon runs became diminished, there was a greater chance monitoring would end for those systems. Thus, only relatively healthy runs are now monitored-presenting a biased view of population health for salmon coast-wide. \’91Without adequate stream monitoring, and a corresponding reduction in fishing pressure on diminished runs, DFO cannot undertake wise or precautionary management decisions,’ says Raincoast. Given the uncertain future facing Pacific salmon due to changing climate, impacts from fish farming, and continued erosion of habitat, reductions in fishing pressure and implementation of the Wild Salmon Policy are critical steps in recovering salmon populations.

Chris Genovali is the executive director of Raincoast Conservation. For more information visit

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