Buried in all the angst and despair of these troubled times, a good news story has been quietly slipping itself into the creeks and rivers of the BC coast. The salmon, which many on the coast still view as doomed, have made a strong comeback to their native spawning grounds. The sacrifices of fishermen, who had their livelihood curtailed, of native people, for whomsalmon are a traditional life-line, of all the western peoples who have watched and guarded streamside habitat, have paid off.
Unlike slow growing cod, salmon can repair their cycles in 8 years, a couple of generations, and now, although some subsets are still on the verge of extinction, most of the silver salmon have completed their homeward cycle. That’s great news for all the ecosystems, and all the creatures in the ecosystems, inland and coastal, which depend on the nutrients brought to streams by these marvelous fish. It’s great news too for the hundreds of thousands of British Columbians who want and need wild salmon to mark the seasons.
Reports indicate mostly positive salmon returns have occurred this year, although many late run spawning numbers don’t get finalized until the end of November. Of course there are still some areas for concern.
Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) salmon coordinator Bert Ionson says favourable ocean conditions have resulted in a very good year in most areas. David Lane at the T.Buck Suzuki Foundation credits lower harvest rates and restrictions. “Fisheries are also restricted to allow sensitive weaker stocks to get by. End result: bad news for fishermen, good news for spawning grounds and stock rebuilding.”
• Skeena and Nass returns were very positive; 2 million, up from the
1.2 M forecast. 900,000 were harvested.
• Smith, Rivers Inlet: Ionson said things are looking positive, much better than recent years. Smith Inlet reached about 180,000 sock eye this year. Ionson is similarly optimistic about the Rivers Inlet numbers, which are not in yet.
• Barkley Sound: 10 % over expectation; commercial catch around 330,000.
• Fraser: 5.5 million returns; catch – 800,000.
Overall, early sockeye runs were less than anticipated, with warm, low water conditions suspected as the cause. The Stuart River run was predicted to be poor at 50,000, but did not even reach 40% of that number. Late summer runs were also a little low, on the Adams River, for example. A 25% catch limit ceiling was in place in order to protect the endangered Cultus run. Some reports were that the commercial fishing fleet caught more than their allotment, and as a result the Cultus returns will be less than hoped for when all the numbers are completed in January.
• Pink returns were huge everywhere but the Broughton Archipelago.
• 25% over forecasts in the North, for example, off Douglas Channel south of Kitimat, the seine fleet caught an estimated five million pinks, about twice the level federal officials had anticipated.
• Fraser River: 25 million – possibly the biggest run since 1913.
The fishing industry could have caught more, if they had the boats. In any case, the price went so low, it was not worth getting more anyway. Alaskan pinks and farmed Atlantics had already forced the market price down.
Since the moratorium on new farms was lifted in April 2002, there’s been very little activity regarding new start-ups. Why? The DFO is bogged down with complicated environmental assessment reviews on new applications and tenure renewals. Also, companies are struggling to make profits on the ones they’ve got.
Sockeye: Poor returns for Early Stuart and Cultus as mentioned.
Habitat stewardship programs: Streamside protection regulations have become implicated with new forest practice code regulations which haven’t been finalized. David Lane at T. Buck Suzuki had this to say. “It is our understanding that there will still be some riparian protection zones around salmon streams but there will be many ways for forest companies to circumvent them or get exemptions under new regulations being drafted. This will hurt salmon runs more than any other provincial environmental rollback.”
On September 4th, the Pacific Fisheries Resource Conservation Council released a report that indicated the demand for water in BC by industry, agriculture and communities “has led to historically low water flows and, as a result, intense stress on salmon and their ability to reproduce.”
By extending the provincial Right to Farm Act to marine areas in October, the provincial government could now overrule local governments when they pass by-laws restricting industrial activities, including fish farm and shellfish aquaculture operations, in their communities.
Otto Langer, director of marine conservation for the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF) recently attended a meeting with provincial reps from the Ministry of Agriculture, Food & Fisheries, and came away quite disillusioned. He feels the ministry is not taking an active, leading role and is demonstrating ostrich-like responsibility. He believes there is a communication gap between the province and the feds that makes it frustrating to be able to deal with fisheries in general.
For example, in September, the DSF issued a press release declaring that the province had okayed 47 licenses for halibut and sablefish farms – which would be the first of their kind in BC. Meanwhile the DFO is saying they hadn’t approved any, nor had any environmental studies on their effects been conducted. Eric Wickham of the Canadian Sablefish Association is quoted in the DSF press release as saying “It is insane to start farming new species the same way we did with salmon over 15 years ago – with virtually no scientific information. Have we learned nothing?” Langer added that it “is even more outrageous that no one was consulted about this expansion. Not First Nations, not coastal communities that share the water with these farms, and not fishing or environmental groups.”
Salmon farms may be having a significant impact on the commercial fishery. Grant Snell, general manager of the BC Salmon Marketing Council partially attributes the low demand for pink salmon to the abundance of farmed Atlantic salmon, both here and in Europe.