Reversing the complex decline of Pacific salmon will take research, resources, leadership and collaboration, according to a new parliamentary report.
The report, tabled in the House of Commons on June 21 by Fleetwood-Port Kells MP Ken Hardie, caps an investigation into B.C.’s declining salmon populations by Canada’s Standing Committee on Fisheries & Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard.
Concern over B.C.’s salmon is not new, with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) launching the Salmonid Enhancement Program in 1977 and 20 federal and provincial inquiries held over the past two decades.
But decreasing catches and low returns over the last few years — less than one per cent in some conservation units — have raised alarm, particularly for chinook and sockeye salmon in the Fraser River System.
Ihe committee heard testimony of stakeholders — from First Nations, governments, fishing associations, research institutes, non-governmental organizations and industry — to examine threats to salmon and gaps in their management and conservation.
Wild salmon stocks are being affected by a range of impacts throughout their life cycle, which span from freshwater streams and rivers, to coastal ‘foreshore’ areas and deepwater marine environments, per the report. These threats include habitat degradation, impacts of flood control measures, predation, fishing activity, and threats of disease from fish farms.
Preserving and restoring Pacific salmon — as well as the quality of life they bring to B.C.’s coastal communities — will take science, resources, leadership and collaboration, said Hardie, in a release announcing the report.
Based on these findings, the committee provided 32 recommendations to reverse salmon declines, which one witness, Richard Beamish, Scientist Emeritus at DFO’s Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, calls the “international Pacific salmon emergency.”
The study compliments a prior report — tabled by Hardie in May 2019 — warning of the impacts of concentrated ownership of fishing licenses and quotas on wild salmon populations.
“Together, these two studies present a view of our West Coast fisheries as more than revenue-generating commercial operations,” said Hardie. “There are important fundamental cultural, social and traditional values — Indigenous and non-Indigenous — that are every bit as important to protect in the interests of supporting communities up and down B.C.’s coast.”
Several witnesses criticized DFO actions and policy, including its ability to coordinate and manage restoration work, its enforcement of habitat protection, as well as the department’s transparency and accountability.
Richard Bragdon, Conservative Shadow Minister for Fisheries & Oceans, and Mel Arnold, MP for North Okanagan-Shuswap, were more blunt in a press release, saying several recommendations in the committee’s report fail to reflect the severity of the situation and targeted the DFO’s record.
“The testimony shared by witnesses shows a devastating legacy of the Trudeau government and its four successive Fisheries Ministers over five and a half years in government. Their testimony makes it clear this Liberal government repeatedly ignored and discarded proven methods and practices essential to restoring and conserving Pacific salmon,” they said in the release.
Per the report, DFO promoting open net-pen farmed salmon conflicts with its mandate of protecting salmon stocks — a finding made also by the 2009 Cohen Commission on Fraser River sockeye salmon declines. As a result, the committee is recommending salmon farm promotion be performed by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, while DFO focuses on the restoration of wild salmon as its primary mandate.
The report targets not only B.C.’s five salmon species — but also steelhead, a form of rainbow trout living in the ocean for parts of its lifecycle. Steelhead are captured as bycatch in salmon fishing, likely contributing to the species’ decline, with the Chilcotin River population now being listed as Endangered under the federal Species at Risk Act. Given this, the committee is recommending any efforts to conserve and restore steelhead should “harmonize” similar efforts to restore Pacific salmon stocks of concern.
Predators, notably pinnipeds — seals and sea lions — were highlighted by one witness as a possible driver of salmon declines. Seal populations in the Georgia Straight have increased tenfold between 1972 and 2000, a trend inversely proportional to the decline of the sport fishery there, reported Carl Walters, UBC Professor Emeritus. One group, the Pacific Balance Pinniped Society, has submitted proposals for commercial and First Nation harvesting of seals and sea lions, under assessment by DFO.
In early June 2021, the federal government announced the Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative, a $647 million federal investment to save B.C.’s wild salmon. This plan will reportedly fund collaboration, consultation and coordination between programs working towards salmon sustainability. Many of these strategies respond directly to the Fisheries Committee recommendations, according to the press release from Hardie.
“The federal government is already well ahead of many recommendations in the report we tabled today, but much more work is needed on the 2019 recommendations to bring fishers a more equitable share of wealth they harvest,” said Hardie.