rabble blogs are the personal pages of some of Canada's most insightful progressive activists and commentators. All opinions belong to the writer; however, writers are expected to adhere to our guidelines. We welcome new bloggers -- contact us for details.

Wild Pacific salmon face an upstream battle for survival

Please chip in to support rabble's election 2019 coverage. Support rabble.ca today for as little as $1 per month!

Photo credit: Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington

Salmon have been swimming in Pacific Northwest waters for at least seven million years, as indicated by fossils of large saber-tooth salmon found in the area. During that time, they've been a key species in intricate, interconnected coastal ecosystems, bringing nitrogen and other nutrients from the ocean and up streams and rivers to spawning grounds, feeding whales, bears and eagles and fertilizing the magnificent coastal rainforests along the way. For as long as people have lived in the area, salmon have been an important food source and have helped shape cultural identities.

But something is happening to Pacific coast salmon. This year, B.C.'s sockeye salmon run was the lowest in recorded history. Commercial and First Nations fisheries on the world's biggest sockeye run on B.C.'s longest river, the Fraser, closed. Fewer than 900,000 sockeye out of a projected 2.2 million returned to the Fraser to spawn. Areas once teeming with salmon are all but empty.

Salmon define West Coast communities, especially Indigenous ones. The West Coast is a Pacific salmon forest. Today, salmon provide food and contribute to sustainable economies built on fishing and ecotourism. West Coast children learn about the salmon life cycle early in their studies.

Salmon migrations, stretching up to 3,000 kilometres, are among the world's most awe-inspiring. After spending adult lives in the ocean, salmon make the arduous trip up rivers against the current, returning to spawn and die where they hatched. Only one out of every thousand salmon manages to survive and return to its freshwater birthplace.

So what's going wrong? Climate change is amplifying a long list of stressors salmon already face. Sockeye salmon are sensitive to temperature changes, so higher ocean and river temperatures can have serious impacts. Even small degrees of warming can kill them. Low river flows from unusually small snowpacks linked to climate change make a tough journey even harder.

Oceans absorb the brunt of our climate pollution -- more than 90 per cent of emissions-trapped heat since the 1970s. Most warming takes place near the surface, where salmon travel, with the upper 75 metres warming 0.11 degrees celsius per decade between 1971 and 2010. Although ocean temperatures have always fluctuated, climate change is lengthening those fluctuations. A giant mass of warmer-than-average water in the Pacific, known as "the blob", made ocean conditions even warmer, with El Niño adding to increased temperatures. Salmon have less food, and face new predators migrating north to beat the heat.

Beyond creating poor environmental conditions for salmon, climate change increases disease risks. Warm conditions have led to sea lice outbreaks in farmed and wild salmon, and a heart and muscle inflammatory disease has been found in at least one farm. Scientists researching salmon movement through areas with farms are finding wild fish, especially young ones, with elevated parasite levels. Diseases that cause even slight deficiencies in swimming speed or feeding ability could make these marathon swimmers easy prey.

Some question whether wild salmon will remain a West Coast food staple. For the first time, the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program has advised consumers to avoid buying chinook and coho from four South Coast fisheries. Researchers also predict changing conditions will drive important food fish north by up to 18 kilometres a decade.

Disappearing salmon don't just affect humans but all coastal ecosystems and wildlife. Eighty-two endangered southern resident killer whales depend on chinook salmon to survive. As chinook stocks go down, the likelihood that these whales could become extinct goes up.

Although the federal government has committed to implement recommendations from Justice Bruce Cohen's inquiry into Fraser River sockeye and to follow the Wild Salmon Policy, reversing this dire situation will take widespread concerted and immediate action. A weak provincial climate plan that fails to meet emissions targets and acceptance of new ocean-based fish farm applications won't help wild salmon. We need to move fish farms out of the water and onto land.

Salmon are resilient and have survived ice ages and other challenges over millions of years. They've survived having their streams paved over. They've survived toxins dumped into their environments. The question is, can they -- and the ecosystems that depend on them -- survive climate change and fish farms and all the other stressors humans are putting on them?

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation senior communications specialist Theresa Beer.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.

Photo credit: Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.

Comments

We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:

Do

  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.

Don't

  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.