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March-April 2011

Boom year for B.C. salmon belies deeper troubles with Pacific fishery

Brad Badelt

Pacific salmon. Photo by Robert Koopmans

There had been talk that 2010 might be a good year for sockeye salmon, maybe even a great one. But nobody expected what was to come.

It started in early August, when the Pacific Salmon Commission, a government-appointed body of Canadian and U.S. scientists, forecast 10 million sockeye would reach the mouth of B.C.’s Fraser River later in the month. It was seen as a bold prediction at the time, given the near total collapse of the sockeye fishery the previous three years.

Two weeks later, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans released its first forecast, based on test catches in the area, a whopping 25 million sockeye salmon. It sparked a flurry of headlines—“Fraser River Fishery Braces for Bonanza,” the CBC crowed—and near-chaos along the river when the fishery finally opened on August 25.

“We’ve fished all our lives and we’d never seen anything like it” says Steve Johansen, owner of Organic Ocean, who fished in the Georgia Strait, near the mouth of the Fraser.

“Every day we went out there, and as far as you could see in every direction were sockeye jumping. All day, every day,” said Johansen. “Some days there were so many fish they were actually hitting the sides of our boat.”

When all was said and done, more than 34 million sockeye returned to the Fraser River in 2010, making it the biggest return in nearly a century. It prompted some observers to ask the uncomfortable question: is this iconic fish really on the verge of collapse?

The short answer is yes. The sockeye salmon is in serious trouble, much like the Atlantic cod was two decades before its fateful collapse. The Fraser sockeye, which accounts for roughly half the economic value of all salmon caught in B.C., has been in a downward spiral for decades.

In 2009, the stock appeared to hit rock bottom. After two years of disastrously low numbers, the Pacific Salmon Commission had predicted a modest return of 10 million sockeye—nearly the same number as predicted in 2010—yet only 1.9 million showed up in the Fraser, making it one of the lowest returns on record.

Public outrage over the nine million “missing fish” was heated enough to prompt the federal government to establish the Cohen Commission, a $15 million inquiry headed by B.C. Supreme Court judge Bruce Cohen that’s been under way since last June, tasked with figuring out what went wrong and how best to fix it.

While it’s certainly not the first investigation into the salmon decline—there have been seemingly endless studies and reports done on the sockeye over the last 20 years—the inquiry is by far the most expensive and the highest profile.

The real question, however, is whether the Cohen Commission can actually deliver meaningful change.

“One year certainly does not make a trend,” says Dr. John Reynolds, an aquatic ecologist at Simon Fraser University, referring to the miraculous sockeye return of 2010. “Every generation of fish operates independently from every other year.”

The long-term trend for sockeye salmon has been one of steady decline. In pre-European times, there would often be more than 100 million sockeye fighting their way up the Fraser River. It wasn’t until the Hudson’s Bay Company turned to salt salmon as its primary export after the fur trade dried up that the first commercial fishery was organized. For the sockeye salmon, it’s been downhill ever since.

According to Reynolds, who is a scientific reviewer for the Cohen Commission, the underlying issue for sockeye in recent years is declining productivity. Simply put, the number of fish that come back to a river for each fish that produced them is dropping.

“You could, in theory have a lot of fish coming back to spawn in one year, but if most of their young die, there will be low productivity coming from that generation,” explains Reynolds.

Sockeye productivity has been steadily dropping since the early 1990s—a period over which commercial fishing has also dwindled—and most experts believe it has something to do with conditions in the ocean, where salmon spend the bulk of their lives.

Young sockeye typically spend their first two years rearing in inland lakes and streams before migrating to the sea, where they spend two more years, primarily in the northeast Pacific, near Alaska, before returning to spawn in the streams where they were hatched, guided by natural forces that scientists still don’t understand.

Over the past two decades, the north Pacific has been warmer than usual, a trend most scientists blame on climate change. Warmer ocean temperatures, Reynolds explains, means less food is available for salmon, especially younger fish less able to compete.

The exception in this oceanic warming trend was 2008, which also happened to be the year when the historic 2010 Fraser sockeye return entered the ocean. “When the fish went out to sea in the spring of 2008 it was exceptionally cold in the northeast Pacific,” Reynolds says. “It was a return to the oceanic food webs we would see back in the 1980s.”

Cooler ocean temperatures, along with a natural cycle in sockeye salmon that sees a larger-than-normal return every four years, might explain the historic return last year. “If we were going to get a good year in recent times, 2010 could have been the year,” Reynolds says.

The challenge, according to Reynolds, is the lack of scientific data. Once fish enter the ocean, they might as well swim into a black hole. When fish disappear—like the nine million that went missing in 2009—there’s no evidence of what happened, making it nearly impossible to accurately predict sockeye returns and even harder to ensure their protection.

“It’s like trying to predict the weather two years in advance,” Reynolds says, “but with even less data.”

The elephant in the Cohen Commission courtroom is, of course, fish farming. Fish farms are controversial throughout the world, but nowhere more so than on Canada’s West Coast, and rightly so. No other active fish-farming locale in the world has so much at stake as B.C., where the wild fishery is still relatively abundant and the ecosystem still viable.

In October 2010, anti-fish-farm protesters paddled down the Fraser River from Hell’s Gate to Vancouver en masse, raising awareness along the way. They arrived on the opening day of the inquiry and gathered, 400 strong, outside the federal courthouse in downtown Vancouver where the inquiry is being held, demanding greater scrutiny of fish farms.

At the same time, the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association was running large newspaper ads, showing a picture of a spawning sockeye over a caption reading: “For the last ten years the rule has been that salmon farming is driving wild salmon to extinction … Every rule is allowed a few exceptions, but this one will need 35 million of them.” For the controversial B.C. fish-farming industry, 2010’s exceptional salmon run was an opportunity to try to counter the bad press that has dogged them for years.

Fish farms started out benignly enough, popping up on B.C.’s rugged coastline in the 1970s as small mom-and-pop operations. Since then, however, the industry has quickly grown into the fourth largest in the world, with 128 licensed fish farms operating in B.C. Of those, 92 per cent are Norwegian-owned and the majority of the salmon farmed is Atlantic.

With exponential growth in the industry, so too grew the environmental concerns. Lice and parasites can spread through a crammed fish farm like wildfire, and those same lice and parasites can infect juvenile salmon migrating past the open net pens. Pink salmon appear to be most vulnerable—in 2002 pinks were also considered on the verge of collapse—but sockeye are certainly not immune.

“There have been several papers published recently that suggest that sea lice from open net-pen farms continue to be very difficult to control and very, very problematic to wild juvenile fish,” says Craig Orr, executive director of Vancouver-based Watershed Watch.

“Our attempts to control the lice by regulation have been met with mixed success,” Orr added.

While sea lice are treated on the fish farms, Orr explained, there’s evidence that the lice are becoming more resistant to the chemicals being used. “It’s a lot like antibiotics,” Orr says. A case in point is Norway, the world’s largest aquaculture nation: lice counts tripled last year, despite increased treatment, devastating both farmed and wild salmon populations. Chile, another major producer of farmed fish, is also battling persistent lice problems. The aquaculture industry insists that farms in B.C. have maintained low lice counts over the past several years. “Lice management has been very effective here on the B.C. coast,” says Mary Ellen Walling, executive director of the British Columbia Salmon Farmers Association. “In other jurisdictions, like New Brunswick and Scotland and Norway, they see much higher levels of lice on farmed fish.” According to Walling, a farm is treated if there are more than three lice per fish, based on a sample of 60 fish. She adds that the monitoring of fish health is audited by the provincial government and compiled in annual reports, dating back to the early 2000s.

Anti-fish-farm protesters claimed a victory in early December 2010, when Justice Cohen ordered the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association to submit detailed documents on fish health, disease, stocking, and mortality for 120 farms, dating back 10 years.

Reynolds believes obtaining that data and making it public is a big accomplishment for the commission.

“I’m not saying I think the farms are necessarily the issue,” Reynolds says. “I’m saying that we need to deal with this issue clearly and openly and transparently, so that people can understand whether this is a high priority.”

Lack of data comes up time and time again with respect to sockeye, but in the end it’s what’s done with the data— policy, regulation, and management—that really matters. This brings us to the other elephant in the courtroom: the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

In late 2010, DFO took over the regulation of fish farms from the B.C. provincial government. The transfer of responsibility followed a 2009 B.C. Supreme Court ruling that the federal government, not the province, should regulate fish farms because it has constitutional powers over the ocean. The legal action was launched by biologist Alexandra Morton, a longtime opponent of open-net aquaculture.

Critics, however, argue that DFO has an inherent conflict of interest, since it must now regulate both the wild fishery and the fish farms. Worse yet, they argue that there’s internal bias toward promoting farmed salmon over wild.

“One of the things coming out of the Cohen inquiry loud and clear is the conflict of interest in DFO’s mandate,” says Watershed Watch’s Craig Orr. “On one hand, they have a wild salmon policy that they’re supposed to be promoting and on the other, they have an aquaculture development policy, which is often directly at odds with protecting wild salmon.”

“There are biases in the federal government right now with regard to how science is conducted, especially around the issue of salmon farming impacts,” Orr explains. “No papers have ever been published from DFO on what’s really happening on the fish farms.”

Concern over bias crept into the Cohen Commission inquiry even before the opening day, when Delta-Richmond East MP John Cummins spoke out publicly against the appointment of a former DFO employee, Dr. Brian Riddell, as a scientific adviser to the commission.

“… The clear expectation of a judicial inquiry is that it will be presided over by an unbiased judge and supported by a neutral staff,” said Cummins. The department and its “scientific advice” are the target of the Cohen Inquiry, says Cummins.

Riddell, now president of the Pacific Salmon Foundation, subsequently resigned from the scientific panel, but he has since provided expert testimony on several occasions.

Even if bias were not an issue, most observers agree that DFO doesn’t have the staff or the budget to effectively look after even the wild salmon stock. The department has shrunk over the past decade through a series of federal spending cuts, with most remaining staff in Ottawa offices and few left in the field.

“It’s disconcerting to many of us why we don’t get more serious about protecting wild salmon on this coast,” says Craig Orr. “There’s a real lack of capacity in Canada right now to do the research that’s needed to understand why these [salmon] stocks have declined.” SFU’s John Reynolds agrees, pointing toward DFO’s wild salmon policy—a document published five years ago that has never been fully implemented—as a starting point.

“They’ve had this blueprint for how salmon are to be managed,” says Reynolds. “It’s a very clear document, but DFO has never had the resources to implement it.”

Whether those resources are one of the recommendations that come out of the Cohen Commission when it wraps up in May is anyone’s guess. But make no mistake, expectations are high.

“It’s not a smoke and mirrors show,” says Organic Ocean’s Steven Johansen, who has been a commercial fisherman in B.C. his whole career. “I think Justice Cohen is giving an honest effort and hopefully we get some answers at the end of it.”

SFU’s John Reynolds believes the commission, by virtue of its high profile, will bring some much-needed attention to the sockeye. “I hope it makes people across Canada—and Ottawa in particular—understand just how important this issue is to people on the West Coast.”

The sad fate of the Atlantic cod has cast a long shadow, one that stretches all the way across the country. While the causes of the two species’ declines might be different—the cod was simply over-fished in the end—most people can’t help but draw parallels between the finger-pointing and the mismanagement that has surrounded the sockeye.

The question now is whether Justice Cohen can stop an environmental disaster from happening twice.

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