Why our salmon are endangered and what we must do to save them, and ourselves

Greg Taylor

Greg Taylor

I began my career in the commercial fishery in 1980. Most people today cannot conceive of the sheer numbers of salmon that flowed from the ocean into our rivers from April to December, only 40 years ago. But starting in the 1990s, we have seen a precipitous decline in abundance for many sockeye, Chinook, coho, steelhead and some chum populations. The once vibrant commercial salmon fishery is a shadow of its former self. The recreational fishery exists only because of its reliance on U.S. and Canadian hatcheries, an engineered abundance that masks, and may be contributing to, the collapse of our local wild salmon populations. First Nations have seen their constitutional right to fish for food curtailed and many are not able to catch enough for their basic needs. For most of us, the essential questions are: why were the returns so poor this year, what does this mean for the future, and is there anything we can do about it?

Why the sharp decline in salmon numbers?

The single largest contributor to the rapid decline in the abundance and productivity of B.C’s salmon is climate change. Within a few decades, the climate crisis has abruptly altered the ten thousand year old marine and terrestrial environments in which B.C.’s salmon evolved by warming marine waters, disrupting coastal ecosystems, melting glaciers, eliminating forest cover through fire and insect infestation, and changing stream flows and temperatures. Wild salmon, already compromised by the cumulative impacts of overfishing, salmon farms, hatcheries, and over a century of habitat degradation, were highly vulnerable to the accelerating impacts of climate change beginning in the 1990s, leading to the recent dramatic declines in abundance.

What does this mean for conservation? 

Salmon are very resilient. They have the genetic capacity to adapt to disrupted environments within a few human generations, provided their genetic diversity is maintained and they have access to a variety of productive freshwater, coastal, and marine habitats.

Conventional recovery strategies focus on ‘recovery’ and ‘rebuilding’ based largely on data collected over the past few decades. But salmon conservation in a changing climate requires a new lens. We must embrace a dynamic approach that is forward-looking and innovative.  We can work with scientists and experts to envision what habitat and ecosystem services salmon will require in the context of future climate change impacts, and invest not only in the actions necessary to mediate the expected impacts, but restore the resiliency salmon have lost due to past cumulative injury.

Changing how we measure success

Canada’s Wild Salmon Policy’s core objective is to “restore and maintain healthy and diverse salmon populations and their habitats for the benefit and enjoyment of the people of Canada in perpetuity.” The Wild Salmon Policy has six strategies, each consisting of several action-steps. But it is Strategy 1, Action-Step 1.2, which requires the recovery of populations identified as being in the “red zone”  that gets most attention, and is considered the measure of success. However, in a changing climate, if recovery of a specific population is the measure of success, rather than the broader objective of restoring and maintaining diverse and healthy salmon populations across our landscapes, it can lead to ‘writing off’ specific populations that fail to achieve some set standard of recovery. The lack of action on the twenty plus south coast Chinook, sockeye, coho, and steelhead populations declared endangered or threatened by Canada’s Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and Wild Salmon Policy (WSP) is a manifestation of this attitude. 

Writing off any salmon runs would be a dire mistake. Maintaining a diverse portfolio of salmon stocks, each with their unique genetic composition, is the key to ensuring the long-term resilience of B.C.’s salmon in a changing climate.

Preserving the genetic variation and distribution that have allowed salmon to occupy habitats and ecosystems from high, arid deserts to low lying coastal rainforests adheres to the primary objective of Canada’s Species at Risk Act: ‘to prevent wildlife species from being extirpated or becoming extinct’. It is also what the public demands, according to numerous public opinion surveys. 

Achieving the Wild Salmon Policy’s mission as climate change impacts accelerate over the next few decades, demands we marry what we have learned about salmon populations and genetics in the past few decades, with what scientists and researchers believe their terrestrial and marine habitats will be like in the next few decades, and act accordingly. 

What can we do about it? 

Most importantly, Canada needs to meet or exceed the targets set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement. The collapse of many of our salmon populations demonstrates how quickly climate change is impacting our planet. Our salmon are gracing us with another gift: a warning of what is to come if we don’t act now.

Planning for salmon in a changing climate must begin with a commitment that wild salmon will be part of our future landscapes at the local and regional level. The next step is for scientists, First Nations and other community members to work collaboratively to create a 50 year vision for the distribution, diversity, and resilience of salmon in their local streams and watersheds. We then need to challenge users, developers, and politicians to clearly express how their plans and policies are consistent with this vision. And when they are not, to explain how they will be brought into compliance.

Currently, we assess risks and impacts on a one-off basis, which perpetuates the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ that has plagued salmon habitat since European colonization. We need a new future-focused approach  to give salmon the opportunity to adapt as the climate continues to change.

Unfortunately, we will still need to reckon with the coming climate change impacts generated by global carbon emissions to date, and expected, even after we meet the Paris targets. There is no avoiding them. We must therefore act accordingly. This is a time when the concept ‘think globally, act locally’ could not be more appropriate. While taking action nationally and internationally to reverse climate change; we need to focus on restoring local stream flows, improving estuary and lower river habitats, creating cool water refuges in streams, minimizing pathogen and parasite sources along migration routes, increasing fish passage to habitats blocked by infrastructure, and enhancing spawning and rearing habitats.

Future salmon abundance, distribution, harvest, and species mix may be different from what it is today. We can’t recreate the past. But if we limit emissions, fully implement Canada’s neglected Wild Salmon Policy,  invest in  salmon habitats and dedicate ourselves to science-based salmon management, future generations will be able to stand in awe on the edge of their local stream and enjoy the wonder of spawning salmon. And in saving our salmon, we just may save ourselves.