Climate Change & Fisheries
The science of now
Changing conditions in the ocean, rivers and lakes are proving difficult for Skeena salmon. Since 2013 the North Pacific, where our fish spend most of their lives, has been unusually warm. 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.
Climate Change Series: Drought in the Skeena
54 Degrees North Podcast
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.
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 step up and 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), beginning with Chinook. 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 recently reduced but new 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 for all species. We’re working with our partners to ensure that DFO is integrating more ecosystem and climate change assessments into decision-making, and implementing rebuilding plans for Conservation Units (individual populations of salmon) in the red zone.
The 2019 Skeena fisheries took a heavy hit through a variety of factors with numerous closures and in some cases, no fisheries at all.
However, the 2020 season is just around the corner and the preliminary outlook suggests possible opportunities along the Skeena.
Our Executive Director, Greg Knox, provides an overview of both the 2019 post season review and the 2020 forecast post review.
2019 Skeena Fisheries Post Season Review
2020 Skeena Fisheries Forecast
Why are we seeing such poor returns?
Salmon live complicated lives that span various environments from freshwater to the ocean. Temperatures in the North Pacific ocean have been warm and increasing over the last several years, which generally 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 unprecedented drought conditions over the last several summers and autumns. 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. Dry summers will likely be more frequent in the Skeena, which will pose serious challenges for our vulnerable fish populations.
While these are current challenges facing Skeena salmon, it is important to understand their ongoing vulnerability. Indirect and likely unintended consequences of the removal of fish from across all Skeena salmon species over the last 150 years of commercial fishing and habitat degradation has undoubtedly diminished the fine-scale population structure and biocomplexity that would enable these fish to better adapt to forces such as climate change.
What can we do?
Poor ocean and freshwater conditions mean that we all need to be more thoughtful in how we manage fish. This situation is unlikely to improve any time soon – climate change will only become more pronounced.
These issues are becoming ever more important, and we all need to step-up if we want to continue to enjoy the return of salmon with our friends and families.
Here’s what we’re doing:
- Working with our Indigenous partners to rebuild diminished wild salmon populations.
- Participating in the Pacific Salmon Commission to reduce Alaskan catch of our salmon.
- Participating in the Integrated Harvest Planning Committee, and providing a strong conservation voice in developing annual fishing plans.
- Actively supporting selective fisheries that protect weak populations.
- Working to protect critical salmon habitats in the watershed.
- Working to improve science, monitoring, and decision-making.
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. While the large industrial-scale hatcheries may sound like a good idea, the science has found them to be detrimental to the health of wild salmon, and terrible value for money [NEED CITATIONS AND LINKS].
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 seamingly 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.
Recently 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. Artifishal is a film about people, rivers, and the fight for the future of wild fish and the environment that supports them. It explores wild salmon’s slide toward extinction, threats posed by fish hatcheries and fish farms, and our continued loss of faith in nature.
DFO’s Wild Salmon Policy
The Wild Salmon Policy (WSP) is a progressive federal government 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 the Department of Fisheries & Oceans (DFO) to help implement the policy over the last decade.
SkeenaWild and Lake Babine Nation Fisheries Department actively engaged in consultations with DFO to develop a WSP implementation plan. However, DFO has made slow progress. While this engagement has produced some positive results, a critical component of the WSP – monitoring the health of salmon populations – has continued to erode. SkeenaWild’s Director of Science, 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.
First Nations Support
SkeenaWild provides science support to several First Nations, including Wet’suwet’en, Gitxsan, Lake Babine, and Gitanyow. Such support spans multiple disciplines, including ecology, toxicity, fisheries science, and conservation. Our Director of Science works most closely with the Office of the Wet’suwet’en Fisheries Department, with activities that include: characterizing the genetic structure of small populations, estimating spawning escapements, mentoring young fisheries biologists, and developing a monitoring program for the collection of sockeye scales and genetic tissue for baseline data and future conservation studies.