For British Columbians our New Year's resolution should be to finally do something about the salmon before there aren't any left. The millions of spawning salmon that used to make their way up the countless rivers and streams of this Province in an annual event that sustained thousands of fishermen, nourished First Nations people for over 30,000 years, and should have continued in perpetuity has been almost completely wiped out. Why is nothing being done?
Ever since 2009 when an estimated 8 million sockeye salmon failed to appear in the Fraser River, which is the most important salmon run in the Province, the finger pointing and speculation has continued with no definitive action being taken. Returns of sockeye have ranged from 2 million to 28 million per year but even the large runs that occur every 4 years have been steadily declining in what can only be described as a slow moving environmental disaster. This past year less than 300,000 salmon returned.
Scientists have come up with the so-called 4-H's to describe what has been the cause of the salmon decline all over the Pacific Northwest and it's hard to argue with the facts that we have over harvested the fishery, ruined many of the spawning streams (particularly in the Fraser River with all the industrial activity), built dams that block their route, and then try to compensate by breeding too many genetically inferior fish in hatcheries that compete with wild salmon for limited supplies. But there are other factors as well including the effects of global warming on the ocean and the spread of sea lice from salmon farms located along the migration routes of the salmon.
There are five distinct Pacific salmon species and they aren't equal in terms of size, numbers, age, or preference. Southern resident killer whales for example depend on Chinook (which can grow up to 44 kg.) for their diet and they are also preferred by sports fishermen. Because of their colour and milder taste Pink and Chum salmon are usually canned, and because of their brighter red colour and flavour the public for the most part prefers to buy Coho or Sockeye salmon for cooking. Some of these runs, like the Chum and Pink salmon seem to still be doing okay but the decline of the Chinook has been linked to the starvation of the Southern resident killer whales of which there are now only 74.
An organization in the U.S. the Centre For Whale Research, based in Friday Harbour has recently purchased 45 acres of land on either side of the Elwha River near Port Angeles where they hope to naturally raise Chinook salmon in a restored habitat where they have historically spawned. Dubbed the Big Salmon Ranch, they hope to lead by example so that other spawning areas in the Salish Sea will be restored and enough Chinook salmon produced to once again support the Southern resident killer whales. Whether this and a ban on fishing for Chinook salmon will save the day is yet to be seen.
In the meantime, the Federal government, which is responsible for the Nation's fisheries, (and hoping to avoid a repeat demonstration of its ineptitude, with a collapse of the West Coast fishery similar to the collapse of the cod fishery on the East Coast 30 years ago) has ordered a phased out closing of all open net fish farms in the Discovery Islands in a bid to slow the spread of sea lice. But these farms employ thousands of workers and, if the companies don't move to some sort of land based containment system, these jobs will be lost with a huge impact on the local communities. Ironically it is farmed salmon that are doing more than anything else to save wild salmon.
With more and more people wanting to eat salmon there is no way the wild stocks could keep up with a growing consumer demand. Since 2009 the annual supply of wild salmon has been less than a million tons but the supply of farmed salmon has steadily increased to where it is now almost 2.5 million tons. This demand for salmon is increasing for many reasons including the fact it is healthier and more efficient to produce than chicken, pork, or beef. Interestingly, the salmon species responsible for all this farming is the Atlantic salmon not one of the five Pacific salmon species.
What makes Pacific salmon so unique of course is their anadromous life cycle. Each of these salmon species hatch in small freshwater streams and then migrate to the sea where they mature over the next two to six years. When mature, the salmon return to the same streams where they were hatched to spawn and repeat the cycle over again. To catch them all you have to do is wait for them to return. With such a plentiful food supply it's easy to see why the First Nations people held the salmon to be sacred.
Pacific salmon underpin the culture and history of British Columbia as well as that of Alaska, Washington and Oregon. To lose this precious, renewable resource would be unthinkable, particularly if it was something we could have controlled, so efforts around the 4 H's and fish farm contamination have to be intensified. As to what the fish are up to in the open ocean is, of course, a mystery and something we have no control over. In the meantime say a prayer for the salmon.