Provincial Wild Salmon Secretariat needs a focus on habitat

In order to recover and sustainably manage depleted wild salmon populations, place-based management and the restoration of salmon watersheds is the best way forward given the changing environmental conditions that confront these fish and the value that British Columbians place on them.

A salmon swims in to the current on the bottom of the Lower Fraser river: closeup of a salmon nose.

Photo by April Bencze.

Last year, Raincoast Conservation Foundation participated in a meeting that BC Green MLA Adam Olsen hosted proposing the concept of a provincial Wild Salmon Secretariat. We were supportive of this initiative, as the huge gap in DFO’s jurisdictional authority over salmon habitat has perpetuated the crisis we now face in salmon watersheds. We were also encouraged to see the NDP government embrace the concept, as it implied they understood BC’s role in habitat loss and the need to fundamentally change the siloed and piecemeal land use decisions that created it.

Several disappointments have since followed. First, was the lack of salmon scientists and salmon conservation groups on the Secretariat’s panel. Subsequently, the Secretariat produced a report which appears like an end run around the federal Wild Salmon Policy and any perceived constraints it might have on harvest and hatcheries. The report gives the impression that the province’s primary agenda is to assert influence over access to artificially propagated fish.

While the report gives a nod to the problems of hatcheries, it overlooks why the pursuit of hatcheries and ocean ranching compromises the likelihood of keeping wild salmon on the landscape into the future. It lacks a full understanding of the way hatcheries undermine the survival of wild salmon, or how repeatedly allowing hatchery fish to spawn erodes genetic diversity. Studies indicate the reduction in fitness of hatchery salmon that spawn in the wild is not expected to recover quickly, if at all, in part because hatchery fish are continually being added to the spawning grounds.

The plan to initiate ocean ranching is analogous to adding more cattle to an over grazed field when the goal is to restore bison.  Tweet This!

A federal review of Chinook in southern BC found compatibility issues between the objectives of their Wild Salmon Policy and elements of their Salmonid Enhancement Program. The review identified Vancouver Island hatchery programs to be operating at serious odds with the principles of wild salmon conservation. They also found risks to wild salmon were created by the high proportions of hatchery Chinook, corresponding low proportions of wild Chinook, and the extensive straying of hatchery Chinook. This caused significant genetic change and homogenization of previously wild salmon, leading to the loss of locally adapted populations. Thus, using a hatchery to rebuild depleted wild salmon while continuing to fish on them does not work; it only drives the depleted wild populations closer to extinction. Hatcheries can only help depleted populations when they are done in conjunction with fisheries closures.

These criticisms of hatcheries have not touched on ecological interactions and the ocean’s limited capacity to support more hatchery salmon, a factor that may be influencing the abundance, size and productivity of Chinook and other salmon. In this sense, the plan to initiate ocean ranching is analogous to adding more cattle to an over grazed field when the goal is to restore bison. Perhaps now is the time to develop a coordinated approach with other salmon nations to steward the commons of the North Pacific Ocean.

Sadly, the Secretariat’s report also misses the mark on habitat. Ongoing habitat loss has unfolded because of the conflicting mandates between ministries charged with land development and resource extraction, and the meagre efforts of individuals charged with protecting salmon habitat. These conflicting mandates need to be harmonized under an objective that prioritizes watershed resilience. The most important thing the province could do is co-ordinate land use regulation and planning across federal, provincial, municipal and other jurisdictions.

The uniqueness of each river, and the salmon that return to it, drives place-based management.  Tweet This!

Equally at the heart of the wild salmon problem are ocean-based fisheries. These have evolved in the last century in conflict with knowledge that each wild salmon run is uniquely adapted to its natal river and watershed. The uniqueness of each river, and the salmon that return to it, drives place-based management. Consequently, wild salmon recovery requires harvest to occur as close as practical to the rivers of origin of each salmon run. Combined with sustainable and selective fisheries, this approach can replace conventional fisheries that have failed to manage salmon sustainably, which has affected communities that once relied on former levels of abundance.

Raincoast is part of a First Nations and federally led initiative to address the declining status of Chinook in southern BC. This committee is set to release a report that has taken five years to complete. Unfortunately, most of strategies identified to recover Chinook populations do not fall under federal jurisdiction. They fall under municipal, regional and provincial authority. This is where the province has a huge opportunity. If the province wants to create an economy where people are engaged with the outdoors, ecosystems and wild salmon, create a restoration economy; there is no shortage of places to work. The benefits would accrue at levels of social, economic, and physical well-being, in addition to the ecological gains. Such an approach could also recognize the economic benefits that spawning salmon provide beyond their catch in fisheries. Communities on BC’s central coast increasingly rely on tourism that requires spawning salmon in the watersheds of their territories. Even the North Island and the interior now have businesses that interact with spawning salmon – from viewing bears and other wildlife to snorkeling with them.

In order to recover and sustainably manage depleted wild salmon populations, place based management and the restoration of salmon watersheds is the best way forward.  Tweet This!

Polling shows that British Columbians overwhelmingly value salmon returning to the thousands of streams and rivers that define BC’s landscape. The Secretariat’s proposal to create more salmon factories will not further this goal, nor address the crisis at hand – the loss of wild populations from their historic rivers and streams.

To put wild salmon on the path to recovery, commodity production cannot remain the focus of salmon management. In order to recover and sustainably manage depleted wild salmon populations, place based management and the restoration of salmon watersheds is the best way forward given the changing environmental conditions that confront these fish and the value that British Columbians place on them.

Wild Salmon

A version of this article was first published in the Times Colonist.

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