2020 Sees "Dramatic and Widespread" Decline in Spawning Salmon

An early overview of 2020 salmon return numbers in BC doesn't look good

by Greg Taylor

Salmon | Photo ©Ester Strijbos

Sometimes there is simply no comfort in saying “I told you so.” As we predicted, 2020 has been a terrible year for salmon returns. Wild salmon abundance throughout the province has been in dramatic decline due to the climate crisis, habitat loss, water extraction, fish farms, predation, poor fisheries monitoring, and a reduction of diversity and resilience due to harvest and hatcheries. The Big Bar landslide on the Fraser River, which blocked salmon from more than half of BC’s largest salmon-bearing watershed, was like throwing gas on the fire. It wasn’t difficult to see 2020 was going to be a very challenging year for our fish.

Although we’ve seen salmon populations declining for years, forcing fisheries managers to restrict harvests, until 2020 the number of spawners remained relatively constant. On average, the highs and lows tended to balance out between species and rivers across the province. But this year, throughout the province, we’ve seen a dramatic and widespread reduction in the number of spawning salmon. This could lead to a further acceleration in the overall decline as a reduced number of spawners this year often spells lower numbers of fish in the future: the proverbial snowball effect.

Every additional spawning fish contributes to the diversity and resilience salmon will need to withstand the impacts of climate change.

Is there any good news? Maybe.

In May of this year, a La Niña event began to emerge. La Niña events bring cooler sea surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific where BC salmon spend most of their adult lives. Cooler temperatures favour salmon.

It is predicted the current La Niña event will persist through the spring, at least. We may already be seeing the benefit of this in some of the coho returns to streams in Oregon and California. Declining salmon abundances due to the warming caused by El Niño and “blob” events tend to work their way from south to north. The opposite often holds true when marine waters in the eastern Pacific cool.

If La Niña cooling does increase the returns of some salmon runs over the next couple of years, we should look upon it as a conservation opportunity, not a harvest opportunity. Seasonal variability in salmon numbers brought about by temporary fluctuations in sea surface temperatures needs to be overlaid against the dramatic decline in salmon abundance due to climate change. That decline is forecast to continue, irrespective of transitory changes in ocean temperatures. Every additional spawning fish contributes to the diversity and resilience salmon will need to withstand the impacts of climate change while we reduce carbon emissions, improve critical habitats and water availability, reform our harmful hatchery practices, and implement recovery strategies.

Only two cycles (eight years) ago, the Fraser had a sockeye return of over 2 million. The 2020 return will be less than 300,000, a third of the already shockingly low pre-season forecast of just over 900,000.

At time of writing it is still too early to provide a useful report on spawning numbers for most salmon populations – they won’t begin to become available until early in December. Fisheries for BC wild salmon were limited to a relatively large commercial pink fishery in the Great Bear Rainforest where about 1.45 million were harvested. Unfortunately, even though Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) was forewarned about the poor chum numbers in the area, they allowed the fishery to proceed with no independent compliance monitoring in effect. This fishery is notorious for bycatch of depleted chum and other non-target species, and poor compliance with regulations to release the non-target fish with minimal harm. The predictable result is very few chums have been seen in the local streams. Masset Inlet on Haida Gwaii also saw a reasonable pink fishery.

Sockeye returns for Nass River did not allow for anything but some Nisga’a food fisheries. It was a similar story for the Skeena. Most First Nations had some access to sockeye for food, but there was no surplus available for the marine fishery. A potential known-stock fishery for enhanced sockeye was derailed by COVID-19 as local First Nations felt the risk would be too high for their elders. Interestingly, the Lake Babine Nation was able to supply some much needed food fish to the Secwepemc Nation in the Kamloops area.

Sockeye, pink, coho, and chum abundances in the rest of the north and central coast were insufficient to support fisheries and there are many reports of poor spawning abundances in key wild salmon streams.

Governments are making short-term political choices to benefit industries in the face of scientific advice to the contrary.

Fraser sockeye, as has been well reported, saw their worst return in history. Only two cycles (eight years) ago, the Fraser had a sockeye return of over 2 million. The 2020 return will be less than 300,000, a third of the already shockingly low pre-season forecast of just over 900,000. Early reports from the spawning grounds suggest that the final number will be even lower. While the Big Bar landslide was a contributing factor, returns were also brutally low in tributaries of the Fraser that were not affected by the slide, including the fabled Adams and Shuswap runs.

Fraser Chinook returns are still being assessed, but in-season test fishing suggests we should brace for very low final numbers. The same for Thompson and Nicola River steelhead.

Chum fisheries are currently ongoing. There appear to be enough chums around to meet spawning objectives for the Fraser River and mid-Vancouver Island enhanced streams, but fishing is relatively poor.

The decline in BC’s salmon abundance over the past 40 years, culminating in this year’s return, is a slow moving environmental disaster the likes of which Canada has not seen since the collapse of the East Coast cod fishery almost thirty years ago. Unfortunately, the causes are similar: governments are making short-term political choices to benefit industries in the face of scientific advice to the contrary.

There are many things we can do to relieve the pressure on our endangered salmon runs, including adopting more sustainable fishing practices that kill fewer fish from endangered populations, restoring vital habitats like those in the lower Fraser River now blocked by hundreds of obsolete flood structures, removing fish farms from wild salmon migration routes, and, of course, by addressing the climate crisis.

There is no more time for status quo fishery management, for further habitat destruction, or for industrial salmon hatcheries whose genetically inferior fish compete with wild salmon for limited food supplies. We can save our salmon, and likely ourselves, if we come together and demand our provincial and federal leaders ensure their decisions today lead to abundant wild salmon on the landscape 40 years from now. Because as British Columbians, we are our salmon, and our salmon are us.


Greg Taylor has worked in the BC seafood industry for over 30 years. As fisheries advisor to Watershed Watch Salmon Society, he writes annual recaps of the salmon fishing season every year. This is his early review of 2020; final numbers will not be available until at least December.


Watershed Sentinel Dec2020-Jan2021 CoverThis article appears in our December 2020 | January 2021 issue.

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