Record low returns have alarm bells sounding over a potential salmon crisis on the West Coast.
“We have a salmon emergency taking place right now in coastal B.C.,” Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns told the Westerly News. “We’re on the way to seeing our Pacific salmon go the way of Atlantic cod.”
Captain Josh Temple of Tofino said Clayoquot Sound’s salmon populations have “crashed” and pointed to data released by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada in November that show sockeye returns dropped to 0.003 per cent of the 12-year average.
“Across the board, Chinook, Coho, Sockeye and Chum salmon populations in Clayoquot Sound have crashed,” Temple wrote in a recent media release. “With returns in 2019 plummeting to extinction levels, it’s not time to do ‘something’, it’s time to start panicking.”
Temple is the founder of the Coastal Restoration Society and hopes to tackle what he believes are three key causes of the salmon crisis: pollution, industrial impact and habitat destruction.
“The watersheds and migratory corridors within Clayoquot Sound have been ravaged by pollution and the effects of industrial logging and marine-related industry,” he said. “Ocean plastics and petroleum-based toxins from both international and domestic sources have filled migratory corridors with pollutants that are killing all forms of wildlife, including salmon. For decades we have watched wild salmon disappear from our local rivers while marine-related industries grow and prosper.”
The CRS has launched an emergency response plan that kicked off with an ambitious pollution removal operation in November.
“With the support of industry partners and private donors CRS has hired teams of local First Nations technicians to remove pollutants from salmon habitat and rebuild damaged ecosystems that are no longer able to support healthy populations of fish and wildlife,” he said. “It’s absolutely critical that we remove pollutants in advance of the spring 2020 juvenile salmonid migration. Our emergency response starts from the ground up. Removing these contaminants from the environment is an important first step. Once we have successfully removed all pollution possible we will focus on supporting ongoing work to rebuild watersheds and enhance populations. We need to move quickly, literally every single salmon counts.”
The Central Westcoast Forest Society has been working on improving West Coast salmon habitats since 1995 and believes populations are collapsing.
“While the cause of salmon decline is the result of a multitude of factors, the leading causes are all human in origin,” CWFS executive director Jessica Hutchinson wrote in an email to the Westerly News. “Coastal communities grapple with the concept of a coast without salmon; knowing this species is inextricably linked with the health of our ecosystems, cultural identity and economy at large. Canada cannot stand idle while we watch this irreplaceable and iconic species collapse before our eyes.”
CWFS’ fish program manager Tom Balfour told the Westerly that reversing the decline requires a multi-faceted approach.
“There’s not one single issue,” he said. “I wish it was that simple. People want a bad guy. They want a single thing that we can say, ‘This is the problem’ and it doesn’t work like that.”
He added that salmon could rebound, if given an opportunity.
“Salmon are super resilient and they’re super hearty. They just need to be given a chance,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of change, but we’re lucky in how tough salmon are. They just need to be given an opportunity. Salmon, given a little bit of hope, will and can rebound.”
MP Johns is hoping to spearhead that rebound by urging his colleagues in Ottawa to support an emergency relief package for coastal British Columbia to provide relief for fishers and invest in restoration, enhancement and habitat protection.
“We’re looking for historic, immediate and urgent investments to help rebuild our streams, tributaries, river systems and watersheds,” he said. “Coastal people need action right now.”
Johns rose in the House of Commons on Dec. 11 calling for a $500 million investment.
He suggested the federal government’s roughly $100 million investment in the B.C. Salmon Restoration and Innovation Fund announced in March 2019 falls well short of what’s required.
“Simply, $102 million from the federal government is not enough. We need $500 million right now just in restoration,” he said adding local salmon enhancement groups have not seen an increase in funding for nearly 30 years.
He stressed to the Westerly that funds must begin flowing into the coffers of organizations like Coastal Restoration Society and Central Westcoast Forest Society.
“These are community champions. They’re doing the hard work on the ground and they’re frustrated, disappointed and hurt. They’re seeing what’s happening to a species they care about and that they’re fighting for and it’s painful to see that they’re not getting the support they deserve and need,” he said. “I’m absolutely frustrated and it’s really disheartening.”
Tofino mayor Josie Osborne told the Westerly that drastic change must be fueled by passionate support.
“It’s the classic ‘tragedy of the commons,’ and in all honesty, it makes me incredibly sad. It’s also difficult to imagine how it feels to indigenous people, who have co-existed with salmon for millennia,” she said.
“Are we ready to consider a future in which we no longer eat salmon? Or, at a minimum, a future in which we temporarily do not eat wild salmon while we pour all our efforts into the rehabilitation needed to save salmon stocks? It’s going to be the calls from First Nations, from groups like the Clayoquot Salmon Roundtable, and from people like our MP Gord Johns, to help turn this around and we have to support them all.”