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An Upstream Battle

Ottawa still blocking salmon conservation on the West Coast

by Nat Marshik

Seton Lake was dammed by BC Hydro in 1956. Dams like this one reduce water flow for migrating salmon. Photo by Nat Marshik
Seton Lake was dammed by BC Hydro in 1956. Dams like this one reduce water flow for migrating salmon. Photo by Nat Marshik

Also posted by nat marshik:

VANCOUVER, COAST SALISH TERRITORIES—As sockeye salmon braved killing temperatures in the Fraser River this year, tempers heated up over federal inaction on conservation recommendations the Cohen Commission released last fall.

The iconic Fraser River sockeye—a keystone species in West Coast ecology—have been in decline for the past two decades. This year's run of only 3.7 million fish prompted Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to shut down commercial, sport and Aboriginal sockeye fisheries in August.

The parent generation for this year's run was the disastrous run of 2009, when only 1.4 million sockeye—instead of the expected 10 million—returned to the Fraser to spawn.

That collapse spurred the creation of the $26 million Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River, led by Justice Bruce Cohen. In October 2012, Justice Cohen released a 1,200-page report containing 75 conservation recommendations. Yet according to the Cohen Report Card released by the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, DFO has already failed to meet 14 of 23 deadlines.

"It's hard to find somebody who isn't upset," said Aaron Hill, an ecologist for the Watershed Watch, in a phone interview with the Vancouver Media Co-op (VMC). "It's been almost a year since the [Cohen] report came out, and there's been no official response from DFO. It's just crickets—there's nothing happening."

The St'at'imc Chiefs Council in Lillooet, BC, representing eleven communities of the St'at'imc First Nation (pronounced Stat-lee-um), released a statement in August calling Canada's inaction on wild salmon “inexcusable.”

"Salmon this year have had an incredibly hard time getting to their spawning grounds, and they're not helped by the fact that there's still major effluent discharge into the river, there's contaminants from mining and runoff from agriculture, and yet DFO thinks that this all can be solved by pulling Indians off the river," said Garry John, Chief of the Seton Lake Band and Chair of the St'at'imc Chiefs Council, in a phone interview with the VMC.

Most fishing in St'at'imc territory takes place near Lillooet, at the confluence of the Fraser and Bridge Rivers. Chief John explained that DFO's enforcement officers may charge, fine, or seize the fish and equipment of First Nations people caught fishing when restrictions are in place—in spite of St'at'imc claims to sole and exclusive jurisdiction on their territory.

"We make an argument that they [DFO] have purported jurisdiction—because we've never given up our right to fish," said Chief John.

"Historically we had some really strong, vibrant fish runs and thriving fish habitat. But that's all been decimated by BC Hydro developing their facilities and their infrastructure in the territory."

The Chiefs Council cited three decades of St'at'imc-led initiatives to conserve sockeye salmon. St'at'imc have forgone fishing the endangered Early Stuart stocks, have managed spawning channels and have successfully negotiated with BC Hydro about dam-related water flow.

"Aboriginal people have a huge responsibility when it comes to managing the resource and are very poorly resourced in order to do that. But nevertheless we've done some incredible things in St'at'imc territory, and those seem to go largely unnoticed by federal government and/or by DFO," said Chief John.

The Fraser River panel, which functions under the Pacific Salmon Treaty, makes decisions on fisheries closures.

"The panel consists of equal numbers of representatives from Canada and the US, and we jointly review information," explained Jennifer Nener, DFO's Acting Director of Salmon in the Pacific Region, in a phone interview with the VMC. "The crux of our focus on the harvesting side is trying to provide opportunities for Canadians while making decisions that will ensure—or hopefully ensure, as much as we can—that there will be fish for the future."

In March the Harper government cut DFO's budget by $100 million over the next five years.

"So many people have been laid off in that ministry," said Bill Spencer, a Lillooet local who has worked in salmon conservation for three decades and helped found the community group Salmon Talks in 2009. "All their habitat specialists in this area are gone now."

Layoffs do not bode well for a task as notoriously difficult as salmon management.

"Salmon are really complex," said Hill. "We have five species [in BC], but they're made up of hundreds of genetically unique, individual populations that are uniquely adapted to the various rivers and streams that they return to spawn in, and they're made up of thousands of individual spawning populations spread throughout the province. So the threats that they face...are all very unique. Often there will be a number of salmon populations that are doing poorly at any given time, and there will be some that are doing well."

Pink salmon are a case in point, with a whopping 26 million returned to the Fraser this year. Though a boon to commercial harvesters, their abundance presents new challenges to sockeye conservation. Commercial fishing boats called seiners scoop up thousands of fish at a time. Although they're required to throw "bycatch" (restricted salmon, like sockeye or Coho) back into the river, DFO estimates that only 75 per cent of those thrown back survive.

Hill said that with "no allowable mortality on sockeye," DFO should not have re-opened the seine fishery in September. He noted that river temperatures alone—as high as 3.8C above average, according to DFO—are "almost lethal to these fish."

Temperature is just one of myriad dangers facing sockeye over their complex life cycle. Hatching in freshwater spawning channels, sockeye develop from alevins into fry and later into smolts. Smolts develop "compass orientation" and saltwater adaptations for their migration from nursery lake to ocean, a journey of up to 1,200 km. From the mouth of the Fraser, the young sockeye then migrate north through the Strait of Georgia. After two years in the open ocean, they migrate back to their ancestral spawning ground to spawn. Once back in the river, they survive only on the oils stored in their flesh.

Justice Cohen investigated the impact of "predation, infectious disease, contaminants, climate change, stressors in the freshwater environment...and stressors in the marine environment" on the sockeye's decline. While no single threat was isolated as a "smoking gun," none could be eliminated either.

Cohen's recommendations emphasized that more data are crucial for understanding the significance of the diverse threats to salmon stocks.

Nener could not comment on the Commission. "None of us has a crystal ball in terms of what's going to happen in the future," she said. "We'd all love to, but none of us has it."

Yet DFO still hasn't fully implemented the 1986 Habitat Policy or 2005 Wild Salmon Policy, which, according to Cohen, would have given managers "the information to better predict, understand, and react to the low return [of 2009]." They also might have predicted high returns like this year's Pinks, or the sockeye bonanza of 2010.

Key to implementing the Wild Salmon Policy is a scientific report measuring the status of different Fraser River sockeye populations relative to healthy population benchmarks. In April, the Globe and Mail accessed confidential copies of the report, which rated 7 of 24 conservation zones as "red zones" at risk of extinction. Yet the report has been held up in Ottawa for more than a year, withheld from both fisheries managers and the Cohen Commission.

Hill called the delay political. "There's a lot of people working for DFO at the local and regional level who care about salmon...But there's an organizational culture, and a management culture, that's absolutely dysfunctional, where that results in pandering to special interests and a sort of bureaucratic inertia."

Chief John was also critical of the industrial lobby. "It seems like when the commercial and the sports fishing industry starts crying and whining...they get some kind of kickbacks because of the impacts on their industry, on their so-called livelihood. Well, they can be do other things, through employment strategies. Aboriginal people don't have that other opportunity, to go and get fish elsewhere."

Without more stringent conservation measures, he predicted that "we're going to continue to see the salmon paying the price...and that's going to impact significantly the Aboriginal way of life on the Fraser River."

In the long run, the sheer diversity of salmon populations means that at least some are likely to weather long-term threats such as climate change. "Salmon have shown that they are remarkably resilient," said Salmon Talks' Bill Spencer. "The main thing is that even though they go through these periods of real difficulty, they're amazing in their ability to return and to re-establish themselves."

Spencer can testify to hundreds of volunteer hours from locals engaged in salmon conservation. Members of Salmon Talks have put together Salmon Cafes and the "Walk with the Smolts," a yearly educational program attended by hundreds of schoolchildren from the Lillooet area. They've also participated in the Paddle for Wild Salmon and trips to communities along the river.

For Hill, the good news is that activities like these, and polling data from Watershed Watch, suggest that industrial interests do not represent majority public opinion. "The political leadership at DFO, I think, is completely out of touch with what's happening on the west coast," said Hill, "and it's completely out of touch with public sentiments regarding wild salmon.

"What it comes down to is that people want to see salmon coming back to their coastlines and to their local streams and rivers. You don't need an expert to tell you that that's the sort of bottom line that you need to have."

Nat Marshik is a white queer artist living in Vancouver. She's also an editor for the Dominion magazine.

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Great piece thanks for

Great piece thanks for posting, Nat!

From 10 million to 1.4

From 10 million to 1.4 million! that is really drastic. I hope the commission will come up with important findings so that necessary measures can be taken to bring back the number of salmons to their normal numbers.

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