Following years of decline in the number of Chinook and sockeye salmon returning to the Fraser River, the last two years have been the lowest on record, with significant fisheries closures. Low abundance of coho and chum also constrain recreational and commercial fisheries. Even First Nation fisheries for food, social, and ceremonial purposes have been greatly reduced.
Now, a new report is setting bold recommendations to address the loss of salmon habitat that has been identified as a key factor in the crisis that many recognize for Fraser River salmon.
Since 2016, Raincoast Conservation Foundation has worked with First Nations, conservation groups and dozens of individuals to identify the root causes of salmon habitat loss and to record ideas to comprehensively address habitat restoration and protection. They tracked bold ideas like the reflooding of Sumas lake, the reconnection of hundreds of kilometers of lost streams and support for Indigenous -led research and habitat monitoring programs.
“Fraser salmon face a host of complex problems including overfishing, climate related impacts and hatcheries,” said Raincoast’s Wild Salmon Program Director, Misty MacDuffee. “However, the conservation and restoration of freshwater habitat in the Lower Mainland is one of the few things that most salmon advocates agree on. We need to see the federal and provincial commitment match the scale of the problem and stop making land-use decisions that continue to degrade salmon habitat,” adds MacDuffee.
Of the 46 populations of Fraser River salmon (44) and steelhead (2) evaluated by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, 17 were classed as endangered, 7 threatened, and 6 of special concern.
The report identifies that roughly 71,000 hectares of wetlands and almost 150,000 hectares of forests have been lost in the Lower Mainland since the 1930s. By the mid-20th century, dikes had disconnected the river from 70% of the floodplain. “There are clear opportunities for municipalities to implement green infrastructure options that help recover salmon populations and reconnect kilometers of habitat all while enhancing our ability to adapt to climate change and sea-level rise,” said Raincoast biologist Dave Scott.
Much of the loss of habitat occurred at a time when Indigenous Nations were actively excluded from traditional stewardship and their rights to salmon. “Despite past efforts to stem habitat loss, including coordinating bodies like the defunct Fraser River Estuary Management Plan, the ongoing loss of habitat has never stopped. Raincoast’s Communications and Development Director and co-author, Ross Dixon, adds, “Our recommendations recognize the current context, including UNDRIP and ongoing habitat loss. We recommend that all levels of government -including regional and municipal- along with the conservation community, consider how they can support Indigenous-led efforts to restore salmon habitat. We need to do this before more salmon populations are pushed past a threshold from which they cannot return.”