Saving the West Coast salmon fishery

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Historically, the Pacific Northwest of North America has been one of those spots in the world where food is abundant. The sea along its coast has always been a good provider, and the most important gift it has offered up is the Pacific salmon that once filled its rivers and streams from far west of Alaska to Central California. That is changing.

This year, the return of sockeye salmon to the Fraser River collapsed, and the Canadian government is finally ordering a judicial inquiry into why it happened. "Why" is actually pretty straightforward; the question is, will the inquiry bother to see it, or will it go through the motions inventing reasons that can be addressed without upsetting the many stakeholders with claims on the fishery. And, if the inquiry does come up with a real answer, will the government have the willpower to actually fix the problem, or will it buckle under powerful interests that have too much to lose from any effective program to restore fisheries to historic levels.

The problem of fishery depletion is not unique to the Pacific Northwest. Everyone with any amount of knowledge about Canada knows about the problems in the Atlantic cod fishery and how it collapsed. And worldwide fish stocks are being depleted as the sea is giving up its fish faster than they can be reproduced.

Overfishing is a big factor in the disappearance of the world's fish stocks -- as the global human population increases so does the demand for seafood. And to make matters worse, fish are also harvested for pet food, fertilizer and feed for farm fish and other animals. In fact, it is estimated that about one-third of fish caught are turned into feed for poultry, swine and other animals. Worse, much of the fish being used for this are the small forage fish, which larger fish species depend upon.

Another factor in fishery depletion is habitat destruction. In the case of salmon, this includes the obvious damming of rivers and diversion of run-off, as well as the destruction of riparian habitat by logging practices, agriculture and urban sprawl.

I can remember over fifty years ago, when the world had only a third of the number of humans that it has now, and many forests were still untouched, and commercial fishing methods were not as refined; in those days, we had plenty of fish everywhere, up and down the coast. In my inland community, many farmers took a break for a week or two in the summer to go to the coast and catch salmon and can a winter's supply. In California, this has not been possible for many years now, and the shortage of fish has been creeping northward to Oregon, Washington, and now B.C..

In California, they recently finally imposed no-fishing zones off the coast to help rebuild fish stocks. Also, in a landmark case in defence of salmon, environmentalists have won a fight in California mandating the rehabilitation of the San Joaquin River to the salmon-producing stream that it once was over sixty years ago, before they dammed it for irrigation water. And, in Oregon and Washington, they are discussing removing dams from the Columbia and Snake rivers to rebuild their salmon stocks. These actions are a beginning.

The problems facing our sockeye and other fisheries are not secret. Overfishing and habitat destruction are the key culprits. Fixing this will not be painless, as it will adversely impact commercial fishers, sports fishers, logging operations, developers and others exploiting riparian and maritime environments. It should include huge areas of no-fishing zones up and down the coast, a ban on fishing herring and other forage fish, and a considerable investment in watershed protection and restoration.

What remains to be seen is whether the government has the ability to listen to science and do the right thing, or whether it will play politics with our fishery to protect the interests of those who profit from over-exploiting it.

Jerry West is the publisher, editor and janitor for The Record, an independent, progressive regional publication for Nootka Sound and Canada's West Coast.

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