By Chris Genovali, Executive Director, Raincoast Conservation Foundation
I always associate September with wild salmon and with its onset I’m reminded of a particularly affecting experience I once had with these remarkable fish.The pale afternoon light that is so peculiar to autumn filtered through the trees, refracting through the flowing water to the tessellation of river rocks below, giving the entire landscape a golden hue. A haunting wind blew up the valley, alternating gusts of comforting warmth and icy chill. The alder and cottonwood leaves floated crazily to the water, landing on the tattered backs of the returning salmon holding in the river. My Raincoast colleagues and I sat motionless on the bank, hypnotized by the beauty laid out before us in this rainforest valley located on B.C.’s central coast.
Quietly making our way through the bush there was bear sign aplenty; grizzly tracks and fresh piles of scat seemed to appear around every corner. We followed the tracks and kept moving along down the bear trail until we came to a large side pool bordered by several downed logs. We staked out a mossy bench overlooking the pool and watched the throng of salmon make their return up the river. It’s an event that never fails to mesmerize.
My salmon-induced reverie was abruptly interrupted, however, as we spotted a large grizzly wading into the river. The bear began snorkeling for salmon, sticking his snout and eyes underwater, but leaving the rest of his huge head above the surface.
Raincoast’s goal is to advocate for B.C.’s first fully protected salmon runs. Currently, even runs that spawn in protected areas are subjected to commercial fisheries and can be exploited at levels up to 80 percent. Given the extraordinary ecological value of spawning salmon to terrestrial wildlife, we see this gap in resource management as a grave oversight.
In addition, out-migrating juvenile salmon often must run a gauntlet of fish farms, exposed to disease and sea lice infestation on their way out to the North Pacific. And then there is the specter of climate change, which poses a major threat to salmon on multiple levels.
Canada’s new Wild Salmon Policy identifies the need for management to transcend salmon ‘production’ alone, explicitly seeking information on how much salmon is required to sustain key terrestrial species.
Research being conducted by Raincoast scientists directly addresses this question for an ecologically important group of terrestrial salmon users – large carnivores. Grizzly bears, black bears, and wolves depend on salmon and play a key role in salmon ecosystems by distributing marine nutrients to other users, riparian vegetation, and in turn to the structure and productivity of the habitat that supports salmon.
It’s important to note that salmon are not exclusively marine organisms and considerations about terrestrial conservation in a coastal environment are incomplete when the ecological influences of salmon are ignored.
The concept of protected salmon migration corridors that lead to fully protected freshwater habitats is unique, but it’s something we believe will capture the imagination of British Columbians.
Did You Know?
Chinook salmon may travel up to 2,500 miles from their natal streams and stay out to sea four to seven years before returning to their freshwater spawning grounds.
Locally, Goldstream Provincial Park has a world-class salmon spawning stream with thousands of Chum salmon returning each year.