Island Voices: Wild Salmon Secretariat needs a rethink

Last year, Raincoast Conservation Foundation participated in a meeting that B.C. Green MLA Adam Olsen hosted proposing the concept of a provincial Wild Salmon Secretariat.

We encouraged this initiative, as the huge gap in Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s jurisdiction over salmon habitat has perpetuated the crisis we face in salmon watersheds. We were also encouraged to see the NDP government embrace the concept, as it implied they understood B.C.’s role in habitat loss and the need to fundamentally change the siloed and piecemeal land-use decisions that created it.

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Several disappointments have since followed. First was the lack of salmon scientists and salmon-conservation groups on the secretariat’s panel. Subsequently, the secretariat produced a report that appears like an end run around the federal Wild Salmon Policy and any perceived constraints it might have on harvest and hatcheries. The report gives the distinct impression that the province’s primary agenda is to assert influence over access to artificially propagated fish.

While the report gives a nod to the problems of hatcheries, it fails to understand why pursuing hatcheries and ocean ranching (in which hatchery fish are released into the ocean and caught when they return to spawn) compromises the likelihood of keeping wild salmon on the landscape into the future. The report does not reflect current understanding of the way hatcheries undermine the survival of wild salmon, or how repeatedly allowing hatchery fish to spawn erodes genetic diversity. Studies indicate the reduction in fitness of hatchery salmon that spawn in the wild is not expected to recover quickly, if at all, in part because hatchery fish are continually being added to the spawning grounds.

A federal review of chinook in southern B.C. found compatibility issues between the objectives of the Wild Salmon Policy and elements of the Salmonid Enhancement Program. The review identified Vancouver Island hatchery programs to be operating at serious odds with the principles of wild-salmon conservation.

It also found risks to wild salmon were created by the high proportions of hatchery chinook, corresponding low proportions of wild chinook, and the extensive straying of hatchery chinook. This caused significant genetic change and homogenization of previously wild salmon, leading to the loss of locally adapted populations.

Thus, using a hatchery to rebuild depleted wild salmon while continuing to fish them does not work; it only drives the depleted wild populations closer to extinction. Hatcheries can only help depleted populations if they are run in conjunction with fisheries closures.

These criticisms of hatcheries have not touched on ecological interactions and the ocean’s limited capacity to support more hatchery salmon, a factor that might be influencing the abundance, size and productivity of chinook and other salmon. In this sense, the plan to initiate ocean ranching is analogous to adding more cattle to an over-grazed field when the goal is to restore bison.

Perhaps now is the time to develop a co-ordinated approach with other salmon nations to steward the commons of the North Pacific Ocean.

Sadly, the secretariat’s report also misses the mark on habitat. Ongoing habitat loss has unfolded because of the conflicting mandates among ministries charged with land development and resource extraction, and the meagre efforts of individuals charged with protecting salmon habitat. These conflicting mandates need to be harmonized to prioritize watershed resilience. The most important thing the province could do is co-ordinate land-use regulation and planning across federal, provincial, municipal and other jurisdictions.

Equally at the heart of the wild salmon problem are ocean-based fisheries. These have evolved in the past century in conflict with knowledge that each wild salmon run is uniquely adapted to its natal river and watershed. The uniqueness of each river, and the salmon that return to it, drives place-based management. Consequently, wild-salmon recovery requires harvest to occur as close as practical to the rivers of origin of each salmon run.

Combined with sustainable and selective fisheries, this approach can replace conventional fisheries that have failed to manage salmon sustainably, which has affected communities that once relied on former levels of abundance.

Polling suggests that British Columbians overwhelmingly value salmon returning to the thousands of streams and rivers that define B.C.’s landscape. The secretariat’s proposal to create more salmon factories will not further this goal, nor address the crisis at hand — the loss of wild populations from their historic rivers and streams.

To put wild salmon on the path to recovery, commodity production cannot remain the focus of salmon management. In order to recover and sustainably manage depleted wild salmon populations, place-based management and the restoration of salmon watersheds is the best way forward given the changing environmental conditions that confront these fish and the value that British Columbians place on them.

Misty MacDuffee is a biologist and wild salmon program director for Raincoast Conservation Foundation. Chris Genovali is Raincoast’s executive director.

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