Swimming Upstream – Threats To Wild Salmon Of British Columbia And Fraser River

  • Mural in the Vancouver Four Seasons lobby depicting underwater scene of Burrard Inlet and Lion's Gate Bridge. West Coast Perspective by Tyler Toews, 2019, Acrylic on Canvas.

Starting in the Rocky Mountains and winding its way to Vancouver, the Fraser River is the largest producer of Sockeye salmon in the world. It passes through the entire southern half of British Columbia, bisecting its metropolis, and is a lifeline for the majority of BC’s population – human and otherwise. Wild salmon-spawning streams branch off its entire length, feeding everything everywhere they go.

The Fraser River at New Westminster, about fifteen miles from its mouth, is a hive of industrial activity. Mills line the river and log booms cling to any available stretch of shore. There, the trees wait for tugboats to float them downstream where they will be loaded onto westbound ships. Barges filled with all manner of raw and recycled materials do the same, while freight trains pull miles of Canadian oil and other resources beside the riverbank towards Deltaport and the Pacific Ocean. All these industrial activities put enormous pressures on the Fraser’s Sockeye salmon.

 

Industrial activity on the Fraser River at New Westminster

Industrial activity on the Fraser River at New Westminster

 

Last month, about halfway upstream near Clinton, the side of a rock face slid into the river, blocking the route for salmon migrating farther inland. The Big Bar landslide now poses a significant threat to spawning salmon in BC’s longest river, and it is feared that the Fraser might lose its run this year. Rock-scaling crews stabilized the area and thousands of fish have been scooped up from holding ponds by helicopter, and transported over the twenty-foot waterfall.

 

Natural Gas and Eelgrass

Farther north, three more of BC’s major salmon-spawning rivers, the Skeena, Stikine and Nass, face a different threat at their source in the Klappan Valley. The area is the Sacred Headwaters or “Kablona”, and is rich in coal and methane. As would be expected, oil companies are keen to exploit the natural resource opportunities to pad their quarterly reports.

Traditional gaff salmon fishing near Witset, BC

Video: Traditional Salmon Fishing in Witset, BC

However, due to opposition from the Tahltan First Nation, industrial development is currently banned in the region, but future methane and coal mines are still a distinct possibility. TransCanada is proposing their Coastal GasLink pipeline to carry LNG across northern BC. If approved, the company would also explore LNG extraction opportunities along and near the pipeline’s route, which includes the Sacred Headwaters.

Downstream from the Sacred Headwaters, at the mouth of the Skeena where all salmon migrating along it must pass, an LNG terminal owned by Malaysia’s Petronas is being proposed for Lelu Island and Ridley Island near Prince Rupert’s Flora Bank.

Flora Bank has one of largest eelgrass beds in BC, second only to that found at the end of the Fraser. Eelgrass is an important resource for salmon. Among many other benefits, juvenile salmon find shelter and safety in the eelgrass beds, and herring lay their eggs on it. Herring are a large part of a salmon’s ocean diet.

 

“The time will soon be here when my grandchild will long for the cry of a loon,
the flash of a salmon, the whisper of spruce needles, or the screech of an eagle.

But he will not make friends with any of these creatures
and when his heart aches with longing, he will curse me.

Have I done all to keep the air fresh?
Have I cared enough about the water?
Have I left the eagle to soar in freedom?
Have I done everything I could to earn my grandchild’s fondness?”
Chief Dan George (Tsleil-Waututh Nation, North Vancouver)

 

Industrial development at Flora Bank will destroy the Eelgrass beds, and the salmon population will be sure to follow. Salmon populations in the Skeena are already suffering. A report released last week examined a century of data, and concluded that Sockeye numbers in the Skeena River have declined by 56% in some areas and by as much as 99% in others!

Sign indicating a salmon and trout spawning stream in British Columbia, Canada

Salmon conservation sign in Brackendale, BC

A couple of years ago, when pipeline-giant Kinder Morgan was trying to get their Trans Mountain expansion approved, it illegally installed snow-fencing to deter salmon from spawning in the same area. Kinder Morgan was cited with four violations of the Water Sustainability Act and fined $920

In Canada, where a “climate emergency” has recently been declared, oil and gas facilities that threaten wild salmon habitat are being approved while offenders that destroy wild salmon habitat are fined a pittance.

 

Salmon Returns and Climate Change

Extracting and burning fossil fuels leads to increased greenhouse gases which leads to a warming planet, and BC salmon are caught in a vicious circle. Their habitat is being destroyed to pave the way for oil and gas infrastructure, and is also being destroyed by the consumption of oil and gas. The Fraser River, along with all other bodies of water, is getting warmer and warmer every year.

Adult salmon start dying when water temperatures reach 18°C, and their migratory route up the Fraser is limited when river outflow is less than 90 meters. 2018 saw average Fraser River temperatures well-above and river levels well-below their respective thresholds. Over the past couple of weeks, Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans has adjusted its 2019 estimated Sockeye returns in the Fraser River from 4.8 million to 1.6 million and then to 628,000 now that the salmon run has started. Estimates for the Skeena have been downgraded from 1.7 million to 652,000. The 80% drop in estimates is largely attributed to climate change affecting all aspects of the salmon life-cycle.

 

Fishing, Fertilizer, Fuel, Farming and Fish Hatcheries

BC salmon face many other obstacles besides landslides and oil and gas infrastructure on their journey to and from the sea. They pay the price for our industrial activity and economic prosperity when they come in contact with manufacturing, agricultural and urban runoff. They pay the price for our environmental negligence when fry-bearing watersheds are logged to the stream banks and scorched for decades, or an oil spill pollutes their habitats for years. They pay the price for our green and weed-free lawns when fertilizer and herbicides are washed down storm drains and through their gills.

Pesticides and antibiotics poison their path as they navigate the aquaculture facilities farming Atlantic salmon in the Pacific Ocean. Atlantic salmon out-compete their Pacific counterparts for scarce resources when they escape coastal fish farms and head out to sea. Once in the ocean, commercial fishing seine and gill nets scoop wild salmon and their prey (herring and shrimp) out by the millions – especially in unregulated international waters.

Juvenile Coho salmon fry swim in a holding tank at Capilano Fish Hatchery in Vancouver, Canada

Coho Fry at the Capilano Salmon Hatchery in Vancouver, BC

In an attempt to mitigate the dwindling number of wild salmon affecting the commercial fishery, salmon hatcheries now pepper fish-bearing streams. But, hatchery fish are not wild fish. They are genetically identical to each other, and their size and sheer numbers out-compete and out-breed wild stocks.

Since the 1970s, Pacific salmon hatchery releases have exploded. A 2018 report found that 40% of all Pacific salmon originated in a hatchery, with some areas being dominated by them.

Eventually, wild salmon will be replaced with hatchery salmon to maintain an unsustainable industry. The closure of commercial Pacific salmon fisheries is becoming more and more frequent, and recreational fishing bans along the Fraser and Skeena are now commonplace yearly events.

 

It’s Mine, Dam it!

But, it isn’t only Pacific salmon that face such a fate. Recently, the Canadian government decided that a few hundred jobs at a tungsten and molybdenum mine in New Brunswick were more important than protecting endangered Atlantic salmon – an integral part of the province’s ecosystem. The plan is that the mining company will pay less than a million dollars as compensation for destroying fish-bearing streams in the Nashwaak River Watershed.

Back on the Fraser River, the Mount Polley Mine dumped millions of cubic meters of waste into Quesnel Lake when its tailings dam ruptured in 2014. Quesnel Lake feeds into the Fraser River, but is among the deepest in the world. The toxic waste seems to have settled into its depths and luckily the Fraser’s Sockeye run that year wasn’t too adversely affected by the event. Five years after the accident, no federal or provincial charges have been laid against the mine’s owner, Imperial Metals.

 

Bald Eagles fish for salmon near Prince Rupert, BC

Bald Eagles fish for salmon near Prince Rupert, BC

 

Hydroelectric dams built to provide “clean” energy for households and industrial facilities block the migratory route of millions of fish and flood millions acres of wildlife habitat. These dams are often constructed in remote areas to power mines, which have their own massive environmental footprint, impact and risk.

These mines extract resources that are subject to the boom and bust of fickle and fluctuating mineral markets, and the dams deprive ecosystems downstream by gathering sediment and nutrients that would have otherwise made it all the way to the sea. Instead of building new dams, many countries are now removing existing dams to solve this problem. Even better, we should rethink and reduce our desire for the latest tablet, television, laptop or other electronic gadget. The demand for the newest phone supports the viability of mineral-producing mines.

 

Running the Salmon Gauntlet

BC and Canada, like all other political jurisdictions, have a penchant for the absurd. Salmon have been navigating landslides, among countless other obstacles, for millions of years without our help. Instead of minimizing human-made obstacles, we pour valuable resources into rescuing salmon with helicopter evacuations to mitigate natural ones.

Instead of reducing our use of fossil fuels which threatens wild salmon, we approve oil, gas and coal projects which threaten wild salmon. Instead of reducing our ever-growing consumption of electricity and fresh water, we suck salmon over dams with giant vacuum tubes. Instead of curbing our insatiable demand for seafood, we stock salmon hatcheries and fish farms that will eventually replace robust wild Pacific salmon with invasive species and larger inbred mono-clones.

 

Orca or Killer Whale near Victoria on Vancouver Island

Orca near Victoria on Vancouver Island

 

Salmon affect, and are affected by, ecosystems from a thousand miles offshore to a thousand miles inland. But, the numbers of all Pacific salmon species are in sharp decline. Regulation doesn’t follow the science, and things are not improving for this keystone animal. They run a gauntlet of bears, eagles and wolves waiting for them along the lakes and rivers, and orcas hunting them once they reach the sea. And that’s on top of the all pressures humans put on the species. We have been convinced that salmon is a staple in our diet, when it should be treated like the delicacy it really is.

 

What can you do to help the salmon?
  1. Don’t eat them. If there is no demand for a product, the supply will follow suit.
  2. Contact your elected officials at all levels of government, and urge them to introduce or support legislation that reduces wild salmon catches and moves aquaculture facilities out of our waterways.
  3. Tell everyone you know about the threats to our salmon, and what they can do to help save these important species.

Travel The Blue Path

By |2019-09-12T17:20:18-07:00August 27th, 2019|Categories: Ocean|Tags: , |2 Comments

About the Author:

Diane and Alex have spent their lives together in the Coast Mountains of British Columbia. For 25 years, they have been going down The Blue Path and trying to see and share as much of our ocean planet as they can.

2 Comments

  1. DArcy August 31, 2019 at 09:35 - Reply

    👍🇨🇦😃
    Well said
    Thank you for taking the time to try to convince people to respect what we have and what we are losing 😳

    • The Blue Path August 31, 2019 at 18:41 - Reply

      Thanks DArcy. Like you, we also feel it is important to let people know how crucial and fragile our marine ecosystems are, and how quickly they are being destroyed by human neglect. Thank you for following The Blue Path!

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