Changing conditions in the ocean, rivers and lakes are proving difficult for Skeena salmon. Since 2013 the North Pacific, where our fish spend the majority of their lives, has been unusually warm most years. This means less nutrients and food for salmon and the fish they eat, resulting in fewer, smaller salmon returning to our rivers. We’re also seeing more frequent droughts. Low, warm water makes it hard for salmon to make it to spawning grounds, and easier for predators to catch them.
Warming oceans and rivers, habitat loss and other pressures have Skeena wild salmon and steelhead in the crosshairs. These challenging times call on all of us to be part of the solution. SkeenaWild advocates for the development of abundance-based management plans for all species (managers currently only have an abundance-based plan for sockeye). Such plans will clearly identify various levels of fish abundance that must be met before particular fisheries can begin, with the highest priority placed on conservation. This will help set out the rules clearly and avoid overharvesting. Commercial, recreational and food fisheries in Alaska, the BC North Coast, and Skeena River harvest large numbers of salmon. Historically, overfishing drove down many Skeena salmon populations. Fishing pressure has been dramatically reduced but now climate risks mean precautionary harvest management is more important than ever. SkeenaWild continues to call for a precautionary approach to all fisheries unless in-season abundance allows for increased opportunities. We also participate in weekly in-season calls with DFO, providing feedback on fishing activity and monitoring the health of returns. We’re working with our partners to ensure DFO is integrating more ecosystem and climate change assessments into decision-making, and implementing rebuilding plans for depleted populations.
Salmon live complicated lives that span various environments from freshwater to the ocean. Temperatures in the North Pacific ocean have been warm and generally increasing over the last several years, which translates to poor growth and survival because such warm waters decrease the number and quality of prey foods. The large annual production of pink salmon from artificial hatcheries in Alaska and Russia has exacerbated the problem by increasing competition for limited food that our wild salmon feed on. In Skeena rivers, we have seen more droughts and floods. Low water conditions make it difficult for returning adults to reach spawning grounds, and often results in young salmon being stranded in disconnected pools on the edges of rivers. Large floods from atmospheric river events displace eggs, wash out nutrients and food for young salmon and alter and degrade river habitats. Extreme weather events are projected to be more frequent in the Skeena, which will pose challenges for our fish populations. While these are current challenges, it is important to understand historic and ongoing human impacts. Commercial fishing and habitat degradation have diminished the fine-scale population structure and biocomplexity that would enable these fish to better adapt to climate change.
The Wild Salmon Policy (WSP) is a progressive federal plan to protect and restore wild Pacific salmon populations. SkeenaWild has made the Skeena a priority watershed for implementation of the WSP, and we have worked with indigenous and conservation partners, and DFO to help implement the policy over the last decade.
SkeenaWild’s Science Director, Dr. Michael Price, partnered with Raincoast Conservation, LGL, and academics from Simon Fraser University to expose the enormous cutbacks to salmon monitoring in British Columbia since the 1980s (from 1,500 streams per year to less than 500 now). This study was published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, and the results forced DFO to act, stating publicly that they will allocate significant new funding for monitoring.
The Pacific Salmon Foundation developed the Pacific Salmon Explorer tool which provides the public with timely information on the current status of salmon populations and pressures on their habitats for the North and Central Coast of BC. SkeenaWild has worked with the Wet’suwet’en, Lake Babine Nation and Gitxsan in developing salmon habitat impact assessment tools for the Morice, Babine and middle Skeena areas including the Kispiox Timber Supply Area.
Over the past several years, SkeenaWild has been working with Watershed Watch and other BC and US partners on a major campaign to bring attention to one of the largest threats facing BC salmon. Alaskan seine fisheries are catching an unfair number of BC-bound salmon before they reach their home rivers to spawn. The solution is easy—Alaska needs to move its District 104 interception fisheries off the migration route of BC salmon, to inside waters where Alaskans can still catch their own fish.
The PSSI is a new DFO initiative to stop the declines and rebuild Pacific Salmon. DFO has hired new staff, built a PSSI office and allocated $647 million to the initiative. There are four pillars that direct DFO to reform harvest, hatcheries and habitat and improve collaboration.
Under the PSSI, the Fisheries Minister announced the temporary closure of 70 commercial salmon fisheries in June 2021, targeting mostly gill net fisheries. DFO reopened some of those fisheries in 2022 due to strong sockeye return, but took a more precautionary management approach.
SkeenaWild is working with partners to ensure PSSI can meet its rebuilding objectives. In partnership with Marine Conservation Caucus, we’re providing input on each strategy and developing an independent annual audit of the program.
SkeenaWild is supporting and exploring opportunities to expand selective fisheries in the Skeena watershed. We have worked for over a decade to help Lake Babine Nation expand commercial sockeye fisheries in Babine Lake. This fishery is now one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world as it completely avoids weak populations and other species of salmon, while providing employment for indigenous communities. It is also now one of the largest commercial fisheries in British Columbia. SkeenaWild is supporting First Nations pound trap and floating fish trap initiatives in the Skeena estuary and river.
As the crisis with declining salmon becomes more severe and widespread, governments and fishing interests are looking to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on large-scale artificial salmon hatcheries. While small community hatcheries in the Skeena have minimal impacts and are important for assessment, research and community engagement, large-scale fish hatcheries are a different story. Science has found them to be detrimental to the health of wild salmon, and poor value for money.
The five billion salmon raised and released by artificial hatcheries each year, currently comprise 40% of salmon in the ocean. These genetically-similar hatchery fish are a threat to the diverse and uniquely adapted wild salmon gene pool, principally because they compete with the wild salmon for limited food. Wild salmon are also put at risk when they are caught as bycatch in fisheries targeting hatchery salmon.
Intensifying climate impacts will only make matters worse, leaving us increasingly vulnerable to calls to spend limited resources on a seemingly quick fix. Recognizing this problem, SkeenaWild has been working with a coalition from BC, Washington and Oregon to educate governments and the public on the impacts of large-scale artificial salmon hatcheries on the importance of protecting abundance and genetic diversity of wild salmon stocks.
Patagonia produced a film that takes a deep dive into the impacts large scale fish hatcheries are having on wild Pacific salmon here at home and around the world.
54 degrees North documents the science and stories of climate change from local residents in the Smithers region of British Columbia. We’re already facing climate impacts and are warming faster than other regions. We will need to both act and adapt.
This podcast includes 6 episodes made possible from a Wetzinkwa Community Forest grant. It was recorded and produced by Nikki Skuce on unceded Witsuwit’en territory between August and November 2019 with editing help by Pam Haasen.
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