From cod to salmon: when do we ever learn?

British Columbia may have no other animal as iconic as the wild salmon. Creature of deep forest streams, raging rivers and open ocean, the wild salmon feeds the ecosystem from soil to grizzly, sustaining jobs and culture. That such an emblematic species should be struggling for survival speaks volumes about the state of our whole living world.

As the news of the 10.5 million missing Fraser River sockeye hit the news headlines last month, I was reminded of the warnings that were ignored of threats to the North Atlantic cod. In the late 1980s, I worked with others, including the organized in-shore fishermen of Newfoundland and Labrador, who argued for a reduced quota to protect the species.

The larger corporate players with their enormous off-shore draggers were dismissive of the in-shore fleet. In essence, they and government said the problem in lower catches in the in- shore was that the smaller operators needed to modernize to improve their ‘fishing effort.’

Within Department of Fisheries and Oceans the prevailing belief system (and I chose the words deliberately, as it was as much a religion as science) was that there was a vast ‘spawning biomass.’ Based on a mathematical calculation, DFO brass persisted in refusing to accept the evidence of the local fishermen.

Within DFO were the brave ‘heretics’, scientists like the late Dr Ransom Myers, who defied the spawning biomass theory. By the time the rest of the scientists woke up, they faced politicians who insisted on maintaining dangerously high quotas. And thus, to maintain the economy, they killed it.

Then, overnight 30,000 were made unemployed as the Minister of Fisheries declared the cod ‘commercially extinct’ and ordered the moratorium, which is in place to this day.

The crisis in BC salmon management is not new. Reports, reviews, and studies on the state of the fishery by commissions and international panels would fill a small library. What is new is the startling failure of the Fraser River sockeye after scientists had so confidently predicted record returns for 2009 based on counting at least 130 million sockeye smolts in tributaries to the Fraser River in 2007. Negotiations for quotas were based on the scientific estimates for 10.5 million returning salmon. Lobbying to have BC sockeye labelled as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council was based on the estimates of 10.5 million returning sockeye. It now appears the return will be fewer than two million fish.

What Happened?

As in any engrossing mystery, we have a long list of suspects. The advent of intensive salmon aquaculture has created several threats to the wild fishery. (2009 marks the first time in human history that more fish protein was consumed from aquaculture than from wild fisheries.) The escapement of salmon, especially of Atlantic salmon which is entirely foreign to this ecosystem, sets up dangerous competition with the wild salmon. Salmon farms create anoxic (de-oxygenated) areas due to over fertilization, destroying benthic communities, while, at the same time the intensive penning of animals has promoted the problem of sea lice.

Another suspect is climate change. BC rivers are running warmer and salmon are very sensitive to even slight changes in temperature. At sea the impacts of climate change are also a threat. According to Alanna Mitchell’s new book, Sea Sick, the threats to our oceans due to the climate crisis dwarf its terrestrial impacts. Then there are the threats from polluted waters, both marine and land-based sources, loss of habitat due to logging to the banks of streams and physical destruction of salmon habitat, and over-fishing.

Given all this, the mystery is undeniably deeper, and the science more complex, than in the case of Atlantic cod.

Are there any similarities? Are there any lessons to be learned?

Sadly, yes. We have not ever really addressed the dysfunctionality that is the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. As the story of this year’s millions of missing fish was unfolding it turned out that DFO scientists had the data in 2007 that the 2009 returns would be stunningly low. While the Quesnel and Chilko Lakes and other tributaries had their sockeye smolts counted, there was a later count in the Strait of Georgia. It revealed that those teeming millions of juvenile salmon had never made it that far. DFO scientists reported in 2007 than 2009 returns ‘may be extremely poor.’ This scientific assessment was ignored.

I have seen this movie before. Ignoring worrying science, allowing the DFO managerial class to set the policy and draft the agreed upon script serves no one’s interests. On behalf of the gillnetters, the group that have requested the judicial inquiry, Bob McKamey stated, ‘This is the third year of disastrous sockeye returns.’ (Vancouver Sun, Sept 19, 2009)

I could almost hear echoes of the voices of the Newfoundland fishermen with whom I worked two decades ago in Mr McKamey words accusing DFO of ‘epic mismanagement of Fraser River sockeye, which has been regularly covered up. It is long past time we got some honest answers. We don’t have time to watch four more years of compromise and ass-covering from here to Ottawa.’

The BC government has supported the call for a judicial inquiry. Back in the 2006 election, Stephen Harper promised such an inquiry. That promise is as hard to track as the millions of missing sockeye.

We need an urgent inquiry into the state of the BC wild salmon, and not just sockeye. We need answers to the obvious questions: why was the more realistic appraisal of 2009 returns buried while the anticipated 10.5 million prediction trumpeted? We need a complete forensic review of decision-making in DFO. We need more authority exercised in regional decision- making, guided by science, and reduce the role of remote decision-makers in Ottawa. We need more local engagement working nation to nation with First Nations, while seeking the advice of all fishermen regardless of gear type. Local and traditional knowledge was accurate in Atlantic Canada, while the official science was dead wrong.

If we act now, we may be able to ensure that BC wild salmon do not go the way of the North Atlantic cod.

Elizabeth E. May is the leader of the Green Party of Canada, candidate in Saanich–Gulf Islands and Officer of the Order of Canada. She will be writing a regular column for Island Tides.