Save some salmon for the bears and whales, study says

coastal grizzly bear
Raincoast advocates for wildlife considerations in fishing plans.

Regina Leader-Post

By Judith Lavoie, Oct 22, 2010

Entire ecosystems on the Pacific coast rely on salmon and humans are taking more than their share, a new scientific study concludes. The paper calls for a shift in fishing plans to protect other species, from insects and seagulls to grizzly bears and killer whales.

Some salmon would be worth more alive than dead — especially when runs are headed for

rivers and streams in parks and protected areas, says the paper, published online in the peer-reviewed journal Conservation Letters. “Although more than a hundred wildlife species — like grizzly bears, wolves and eagles — depend on salmon, fisheries often capture more salmon than all of these animals combined, even from runs bound for protected areas created to safeguard wildlife,” said the paper’s lead author, Chris Darimont of the University of California/Santa Cruz and Raincoast Conservation Foundation science director.

The idea for the study was spawned after a U.S. scientist, visiting a B.C. Central Coast park during the salmon run, asked whether the salmon were protected, Darimont said. “We had to say ‘no, there’s a seine boat one kilometre from the river mouth scooping up 50 per cent of these fish,'” he said.

The game-changing idea of altering harvesting plans to ensure salmon is shared with wildlife is viewed as radical, especially by commercial fishing interests, admits Darimont.

But changes can be made in a way that minimizes economic consequences, especially as, in some areas, ecotourism, such as bear, eagle and salmon watching, is more lucrative than fishing for species such as pinks and chums, says the paper, written by 10 scientists.

“Our aim is to inform and inspire decision makers with a plan that not only favours biodiversity, but also one that ultimately might yield economic and management benefits,” the paper says. It is a difficult balance, but not impossible, said Paul Paquet, Raincoast senior scientist and one of the authors. ”

We think there should be some very intense efforts to understand the requirements of ecosystems and other species and the necessary allocation of salmon to sustain ecosystems and sustain people,” he said. Initially changes should concentrate on salmon runs bound for parks and protected areas.

Also, using different harvesting methods could generate higher prices and more employment, Paquet said.  A Department of Fisheries and Oceans paper calls for an examination of the effect of catch rates on ecosystems, but that does not seem to underpin decisions, Paquet said.  The DFO was not able to respond to questions Thursday afternoon.

There is increasing awareness about the role of salmon in ecosystems, so the time is ripe for changes, Darimont said.

This year, bears around Bella Coola have been left hungry after floods washed the salmon out to sea. Controversy erupted over harvest rates on this year’s Fraser sockeye run, with fishermen claiming too many fish were being allowed on to the spawning grounds and conservation groups countering that the dead fish feed other species and fertilize the land.

“We are putting out an idea and, if any resource in western Canada needs fresh ideas it’s salmon because they face a lot of challenges,” Darimont said.

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