Evidence of a Changing Climate
It was 1993. I was in the passenger seat of a Cessna 185, bouncing not far above the waves off the NW tip of Haida Gwaii, looking for sliders. Fishermen often call sockeye ‘sliders’ for the way they seem to slide over the top of the water.
Suddenly, right below us, a large white blob materialized just under the surface. The pilot put the Cessna up on one wing as we tightly circled again and again over a large, sluggishly-swimming fish. We had never seen anything like it.
Back in Prince Rupert, I identified the fish as a sunfish, typically found in temperate and tropical waters. Looking back in my logbooks, I now realize this was my first evidence of the climate change that would ravage salmon abundance over the next twenty-five years.
Then and Now
In 1993, the commercial fishery caught almost 35 million salmon, and most systems were fully seeded with millions more returning adults. This year, seven salmon life cycles later, the total salmon catch by all fisheries (First Nations, recreational, and commercial) is unlikely to reach 1 million, less than 3% of the 1993 commercial harvest. And in 2019, most salmon populations did not even see sufficient spawners to meet their minimum biological objectives.
Largest fisheries of 2019
The largest fishery this year was the north coast hook and line fishery for chinook and coho. Commercial trollers and the guide outfitters/lodge industry caught about 130,000 chinook and 210,000 coho. About 40% of the chinooks were released, but DFO has no accurate estimate of how many of these discarded fish survived to spawn.
The second largest northern fishery was the Area 8 mixed stock chum fishery, near Bella Coola. Gillnets and seines harvested almost 140,000 chum salmon. Most significant wild chum streams in Area 8 came nowhere close to achieving their minimum escapement targets.
The third largest northern fishery was the Area 3 mixed stock fishery, off the mouth of the Nass River, where fishers caught 21,000 sockeye, 56,000 pinks, and 21,000 chum salmon, however none of these species achieved their escapement targets (the minimum number of required spawners).
North and Central Coast
Other significant populations on the north and central coast were also very depressed. The Skeena sockeye return was one of the poorest since the Babine slide in 1951. The Skeena’s once abundant pink salmon continued its steep downward trend. Skeena chinook, while better than 2018, was again poor. And Skeena steelhead was below escapement objectives.
Major south coast species were also at historically low levels of abundance. The Fraser River, once the world’s largest sockeye producer, had the lowest sockeye return ever recorded.
South coast chum salmon, both wild and enhanced, are returning at very low levels. Many south coast chinook populations will not achieve their escapement objectives. Thompson steelhead remains at critically low levels.
The small surplus of Fraser pink salmon was harvested in a non-selective, poorly monitored, fisheries when threatened Fraser coho and endangered Thompson steelhead were present.
The largest fishery on the south coast was the guide outfitter/recreational chinook and coho fishery. Catch and discard numbers will not be released until later this year.
Big Bar Slide
The largest story for many in B.C. was the Big Bar slide that threatened Upper and middle Fraser sockeye and chinook populations. While some fish passage was achieved late in the season, research from the 1951 Babine slide suggests spawning success of those that made it through the slide area will be compromised.
The most important takeaway from the slide is that we need to manage salmon populations for resilience, not harvest. Past and current DFO management priorities have reduced many Upper Fraser salmon runs to a fraction of their historical abundance, robbing them of the resilience needed to handle a natural disaster like the Big Bar slide. Recovery will be difficult and take years, maybe decades and will only be successful if governments make recovery, not harvest, the priority.
Salmon in a Changing Climate
Yes, 1993 was a good year. And yes, 2019 is the worst year on record. But what is of more concern is the evident correlation between steadily increasing global temperatures and steadily decreasing salmon abundance.
Salmon have what it takes to survive the changing climate. They are remarkably resilient, with the ability to adapt to a wide range of conditions and habitats, providing we increase abundance by reducing fishing related mortality, defend their habitats, and preserve their genetic diversity.
Cowichan chinook are bucking the trend with another good return in 2019, thanks to the recovery actions were led by the Cowichan Stewardship Roundtable. Their success speaks to the benefits of rebuilding habitat, limiting harvest impacts, and collaboration, efforts we need to replicate across the province.
Greg Taylor, Watershed Watch’s fisheries advisor, has worked in the B.C. seafood industry for over 30 years.