Looking ahead for each other – new study shows how the Wuikinuxv Nation shares sockeye with neighbouring grizzly bears

A grizzly bear stands in the water hold a salmon in their mouth.
Photo by John E. Marriott.

As salmon populations decline and images of skinny grizzly bears surface in coastal British Columbia, new research shows how the Wuikinuxv Nation is sharing sockeye with their grizzly bear neighbours. Guided by the Wuikinuxv principle of n̓àn̓akila (to keep an eye on something or someone; a protector or guardian), the study is a rare example of how fisheries managers can allocate salmon for wildlife, while balancing the cost to communities. 

Fisheries managers face the challenge of balancing commercial interests, local livelihoods, and the needs of salmon-dependent wildlife. Sockeye salmon are a vital fish for the Wuikinuxv Nation and their territory’s ecosystems. The sockeye provide critical food for bears prior to winter sleep. When the bears have enough to eat, local people and bears can continue to coexist peacefully, as they have for millennia. Finding such balance can be difficult, given drastic declines in local salmon populations. 

New research has found that people and bears can share salmon without harming each other’s interests. By setting sockeye harvest limits at ~10% less than those expected to maximize harvest for people they expect to reduce bear densities by a similarly modest 10%, a trade-off that is not only operable but honours the Wuikinuxv spirit of n̓àn̓akila. The team of researchers and managers from the Wuikinuxv Nation, the University of Victoria, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Raincoast Conservation reported their findings in the peer-reviewed and open-access journal Marine and Coastal Fisheries.

The research team analysed salmon and bear dietary data, knowing that the amount of salmon in bear diet influenced the density of bears. Data from Rivers Inlet sockeye ranged as far back as 1948, and grizzly bear diet data came from community-led research between 2013-2019. Finding that a culturally- and ecologically-appropriate trade-off between salmon harvest and bear densities is possible was a pleasant surprise against a back-drop of general decline in sockeye abundance in the region.

Elected Wuikinuxv Chief Councilor and former Stewardship Director Danielle Shaw reflects on her Nation’s approach to ecosystem-based management. “Every season, we are seeing less salmon than the year before and every season, we immediately think of how other wildlife will be impacted by lower salmon populations; especially how our local bear populations will fare. Our Coastal Nations take an integrated approach to stewardship which has allowed us to consider both marine and terrestrial environments simultaneously. If we’re able to mitigate human impacts in a way which gives ecosystems the time and space to adapt to environmental pressures, such as climate change, that same ecosystem will be healthy and abundant enough to support sustainable human use. Instead of managing resources with human use as a focus, we need to steward with the ecosystem as the main priority.”

This work is among the first of its kind and reflects a shifting paradigm where Indigenous rights, knowledge, and cultural values provide a foundation to western fisheries science to identify sustainable harvest strategies for people and wildlife alike. In Wuikinuxv territory, Stewardship staff have access to data about fish and the local wildlife that depend on the shared resource, in addition to an understanding of what their community needs to harvest. This knowledge supports the Wuikinuxv Nation’s decisions about how to fish their sockeye while leaving enough for bears. Such an allocation to wildlife is something that Fisheries and Oceans Canada has committed to under its 2010 Wild Salmon Policy, but has been challenged to implement due to lack of data in the majority salmon fisheries across British Columbia.

“Our Nation has seen the benefits of Indigenous knowledge and western science working together,” explains study author, former Fisheries Manager, and Wuikinuxv Nation Elected Councillor Jennifer Walkus. “Wuikinuxv’s holistic views help form research questions that tie previously unrelated science or management policies together. When the Nation drives the research through an integrated lens, it allows scientists to escape the silos they often find themselves in. We can learn more from each other when we work together.” In this case, Nation-driven salmon and bear research is providing the data necessary to implement a culturally-directed and values-led fisheries management policy.

“Our work is a rare example of ecosystem-based fisheries management made possible – where stewardship values, political will, and local data can come together to balance the needs of people and wildlife in an interconnected bear-salmon-human system,” reflects lead author Dr. Megan Adams. “Not only was this work exciting for me because I could integrate data on salmon abundance and local grizzly bear diet, but also conduct an analysis guided directly by Wuikinuxv values and management priorities. The Nation’s vision for an integrated, ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management is world-class.”

This work was made possible with support from the Wuikinuxv Nation, Coastal First Nations and Coastal Guardian Watchmen programs, Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Hakai Institute, Wilburforce Foundation, University of Victoria, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and the Grizzly Bear Foundation.