Sometimes there is simply no comfort in saying “I told you so.” As we predicted, 2020 has been a terrible year for salmon returns. Wild salmon abundance throughout the province has been in dramatic decline due to the climate crisis, habitat loss, water extraction, fish farms, predation, poor fisheries monitoring, and a reduction of diversity and resilience due to harvest and hatcheries. The Big Bar landslide on the Fraser River, which blocked salmon from more than half of B.C.’s largest salmon-bearing watershed, was like throwing gas on the fire. It wasn’t difficult to see 2020 was going to be a very challenging year for our fish.
Although we’ve seen salmon populations declining for years, forcing fisheries managers to restrict harvests, until 2020 the number of spawners remained relatively constant. On average, the highs and lows tended to balance out between species and rivers across the province. But this year, throughout the province, we’ve seen a dramatic and widespread reduction in the number of spawning salmon. This could lead to a further acceleration in the overall decline as a reduced number of spawners this year often spells lower numbers of fish in the future: the proverbial snowball effect.
Is there any good news? Maybe.
In May of this year, a La Niña event began to emerge. La Niña events bring cooler sea surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific where B.C. salmon spend most of their adult lives. Cooler temperatures favour salmon.
It is predicted the current La Niña event will persist through the spring, at least. We may already be seeing the benefit of this in some of the coho returns to streams in Oregon and California. Declining salmon abundances due to the warming caused by El Niño and ‘blob’ events tend to work their way from south to north. The opposite often holds true when marine waters in the eastern Pacific cool.
If La Niña cooling does increase the returns of some salmon returns over the next couple of years, we should look upon it as a conservation opportunity, not a harvest opportunity. Seasonal variability in salmon numbers brought about by temporary fluctuations in sea surface temperatures needs to be overlaid against the dramatic decline in salmon abundance due to climate change, a decline forecast to continue irrespective of transitory changes in ocean temperatures. Every additional spawning fish contributes to the diversity and resilience salmon will need to withstand the impacts of climate change while we reduce carbon emissions, improve critical habitats and water availability, reform our harmful hatchery practices, and implement recovery strategies.
It is still too early to provide a useful report on spawning numbers for most salmon populations. They won’t begin to become available until early in December. Fisheries for B.C. wild salmon were limited to a relatively large commercial pink fishery in the Great Bear Rainforest where about 1.45 million were harvested. Unfortunately, even though Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) was forewarned about the poor chum numbers in the area, they allowed the fishery to proceed with no independent compliance monitoring in effect. This fishery is notorious for bycatch of depleted chum and other non-target species and poor compliance with regulations to release the non-target fish with minimal harm. The predictable result is very few chums have been seen in the local streams. Masset Inlet on Haida Gwaii also saw a reasonable pink fishery.
Sockeye returns for Nass River did not allow for anything but some Nisga’a food fisheries. It was a similar story for the Skeena. Most First Nations had some access to sockeye for food, but there was no surplus available for the marine fishery. A potential known-stock fishery for enhanced sockeye was derailed by COVID-19 as local First Nations felt the risk would be too high for their elders. Interestingly, the Lake Babine Nation was able to supply some much needed food fish to the Secwepemc Nation in the Kamloops area.
Sockeye, pink, coho, and chum abundances in the rest of the north and central coast were insufficient to support fisheries and there are many reports of poor spawning abundances in key wild salmon streams.
Fraser sockeye, as has been well reported, saw their worst return in history. Only two cycles (eight years) ago, the Fraser had a sockeye return of over 2 million. The 2020 return will be less than 300,000, a third of the already shockingly low pre-season forecast of just over 900,000. Early reports from the spawning grounds suggest that the final number will be even lower. While the Big Bar landslide was a contributing factor, returns were also brutally low in tributaries of the Fraser that were not affected by the slide, including the fabled Adams and Shuswap runs.
Fraser Chinook returns are still being assessed, but in-season test fishing suggests we should brace for very low final numbers. The same for Thompson and Nicola River steelhead.
Chum fisheries are currently ongoing. There appear to be enough chums around to meet spawning objectives for the Fraser River and mid-Vancouver Island enhanced streams, but fishing is relatively poor and bycatch of endangered Fraser River steelhead is an ongoing concern in these fisheries.
The decline in B.C.’s salmon abundance over the past 40 years, culminating in this year’s return, is a slow moving environmental disaster the likes of which Canada has not seen since the collapse of the East coast cod fishery almost thirty years ago. Unfortunately, the causes are similar: governments making short-term political choices to benefit industries in the face of scientific advice to the contrary.
There are many things we can do to relieve the pressure on our endangered salmon runs, including adopting more sustainable fishing practices that kill fewer fish from endangered populations, restoring vital habitats like those in the lower Fraser River now blocked by hundreds of obsolete flood structures, removing fish farms from wild salmon migration routes, and, of course, by addressing the climate crisis.
There is no more time for status quo fishery management, for further habitat destruction, or for industrial salmon hatcheries whose genetically inferior fish compete with wild salmon for limited food supplies. We can save our salmon, and likely ourselves, if we come together and demand our provincial and federal leaders ensure their decisions today lead to abundant wild salmon on the landscape 40 years from now. Because as British Columbians, we are our salmon, and our salmon are us.
Thanks for this, Greg. Grim as it is. The truth hurts, again.
Time for a Buy Back for those who want it.
It will take ten year’s or more for something good to happen
If this was the East Coast we would already have one
Thanks for the report , in my estimation it was accurate for the most part but some of it is more speculation than fact. The babine sockeye run was later but quite abundant,and the general spring salmon population has been a bright spot for last few years with good commercial and extremely good sports catches. This in part could be from limited access and restricted fishing times but never the less promising. Global warming obviously doesn’t help and Canadians should generally clean up pollution, but the vast majority is from are southern neighbors and over seas. By far the biggest single problem is D.F.O they have a political agenda and are responsible for the vast majority of the problems. We need the fisheries run by non political organizations who listen and act according to the science. The science is under funded,recommendations rarely implemented. Not trying to be to critical but want to get my opinion out there.
Hello I agree with the complete assessment, and it generally looks pretty grim to say the least. But I would like to mention a little positive ,concerning the
Skeena sockeye run. It was actually a good size run the natives and sport fishermen had lots to catch, well over 1 million swam past the Tyee test fishery.
Today that’s a big run, there was no commercial sockeye fishery which helped us in the river last summer and good numbers made it to the Babine spawning
grounds. We had some tough water conditions to contend with which made fishing difficult especially for steelhead and the other salmon spieces
Regards Royce Seidlitz
Fishing Guide Terrace BC.
I would like to see a ban on recreational fly fishing for trout in the Adams River during salmon spawning season August to December. It is ludicrous to see fly fishermen wading in the river when the salmon are spawning. The tourists are told to stay out of the river and to keep their dogs out of the river yet fly fishing is allowed?? Very frustrating for Interpretive guides talking about salmon conservation and for many people to see this from the viewing platform at Tsutswecw Park. No enforcement by DFO so policy change provincially needs to happen and the sooner the better!
Good job Greg! Yes the truth hurts, but we have “sports fishermen”, wanting to kill every extra Chinook, coho, sockeye etc!, where they come to lay eggs to make more ,in freshwater, instead of investing in their survival by letting them do that. They have proven to be very resilient if given a chance! I don’t know where all the Chinook were, because last year we had 300 in the Kispiox as compared to 3,000 when south east Alaska shut all Chinook fisheries disown the year before! We can’t keep trying to get “ our fair share” and expect them to survive! DFO is still trying to cut the pie, when there’s no pie left, but they’re pressured from so many organizations, that they manage our wild salmon an steelhead politically instead of by preservation an conservation!
Thanks very much Greg. Why DFO does not respond to the science and always prevaricates in favour of doing nothing until too late is shameful. As you say this needs to be taken away from Politics and given to science and facts.
I do not understand why fishing licenses do not issue catches by weight. No by-catch – you have to sell all the fish in your weight allotment, which needs to be severely restricted and closely monitored. I am not trying to put fishers out of business but ensure that there will be fish for future consumption by all life. DFO seems to have been an absolute failure.
Amazingly enough, not one as yet has commented on Fish Farms.
DFO continues to ignore facts and science.
Many of us on the BC coast have watched the stocks virtually disappear
as the fish farms invaded.
Until these doomsday net pens are removed,like in Washington State and Alaska
we will only see further declines.
I’m in the sport fishing tourism sector in the Fraser River Valley. So we get to see directly the numbers of salmon returning.
Fraser Valley Chum return this year was and still is amazing.
Fraser Valley Coho return was and still is huge.
Fraser Valley Chinook return was huge.
Maybe up north had a poor return but around here it’s great.
He is talking about wild salmon returns not hatchery returns….
This is interesting and I would like to learn more. Are you able to provide numbers on the returns of these species? Were they below or above average returns this year?
Hi Greg, thanks for your excellent summary. Any suggestions as to how we should address reductions in marine survival and climate change impacts, both of which are largely outside of management control? Pink, chum and sockeye are now invading Arctic habitats, in my view due to climate change and a northwards push of thermal habitats. In southern BC we risk further deterioration of salmon habitats and populations especially for populations along the southern margin of their distribution due to marine and freshwater climate change effects. This conclusion is consistent with both the Cohen Inquiry scientific program and the Southern BC Chinook Expert Panel report.
An excellent report. Over the past 2 months the mainstream press has been strangely silent about this. With people isolating it is difficult to get word from people volunteering from streamkeeping organizations. The few noises we get are what I would call “Panicked wishful thinking by organizations whose funding depends on presenting a “successful.” It is difficult enough in science to instil the concept that “negative results” are as important as “positive results,” and often “more important than,” the drive for funding skews perceptions. Sports fishermen always give glowing reports, that is both in the nature of things and in the fact that they are as not limited in the absence of commercial efforts. I think that you put your finger on the problem, we live in a world that manages resources on a short-term basis to maintain status quo. We need to make transformational changes if we want our salmon landscapes to still be around in 2050.
How come you left out Fraser Coho?
Get salmon returning above the BC Hydro dams on the Alouette and Coquitlam Rivers
Greg, I’m surprised you did not mention the havoc the pinniped populations have caused among our salmon populations. PSF studies show a 50% consumption of outbound chinook and coho smolts in the Salish Sea. Rob Bison states that 68% of outbound Chilcotin and Thompson steelhead smolts are consumed by seals. the number is 89% in Puget Sound. Dr. Walters latest paper indicates the Stellars at the north end of Vancouver Is. consume between 1.5 and 2,000,000 returning adult Fraser sockeye. WSFW paper shows the Columbia R. sea loins consume 3 to 5 returning adult chinook/day/lion. One is left to wonder, with no studies at hand what the consumption/day is of the 48,000 seals in GOG (Olesiuk)
Another paper by Dr. Walters shows that the Stellars alone consume 300,000 tonnes of fish/year in B.C.
Dealing with this problem is now high on the priority list of DFO as SFI, BCWF, Nootka Sound Adventures, West Coast Fishing Guides and many other groups have joined our mission to harvest 50% of the pinnipeds to bring them back into historical balance. This will also provide much needed jobs on the B.C. Coast.
PACIFIC BALANCE PINNIPED SOICETY
for the first time in many years I had salmon spawning in my creek in Brookswood south Langley.
yes a buy back and stop comercal fishing leave these fish for 10 years to recover
One thing that I see missing is a comprehensive analysis of the entire ecosystem and food chain. Ken Pearce is spot on with his comment. Listen to the First Nations and to the commercial fishers, bring back the cull.