Record warm temperatures along the B.C. coast are continuing to threaten Pacific salmon populations, according to a federal government update.
Unusually warm ocean conditions in 2015, spurred by both the Blob and El Nino, are expected to have lasting effects on Pacific salmon returns over the next three years, including increased mortality rates, says a report from a Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) panel of scientists.
Panel members held a news conference in Vancouver Monday to release their findings.
"We've seen the warmest winter temperatures [and] water temperatures ever observed in the northeast Pacific in 2014 and 2015," said Dr. Ian Perry, a research scientist with the DFO.
The panel found that the warm temperatures have disrupted the regular food supply that Pacific salmon rely on, leading to smaller and unhealthier fish.
The warm waters have also brought more predators to the coastal waters, including sharks that feed on adolescent salmon, which is also making populations more vulnerable, according to the panel's report.
Freshwater temperatures rising
Warm weather also continues to have an effect on freshwater ecosystems across the province, the panel's report said. Faster snow melt, less rainfall and above average spring temperatures are leading to warmer river systems, where the salmon spawn.
Warmer temperatures can actually reduce the number of spawning sites in the river. It also makes it more difficult for the salmon to swim upstream, and make them more vulnerable to pathogens.
"The cumulative impact of all these stresses can actually lead to increased mortality," said Dr. David Patterson, a researcher with the DFO.
The popular Fraser River sockeye are one of the many salmon populations expected to yield below-average returns, with the DFO citing a 50 per cent chance of less that 2.27 million return.
The return could be as low as 814,000, the report said.
"Even under the best of circumstances we would not be expecting a large return," said Jennifer Nener, the DFO panel's director and co-chair.
Regardless, seasonal fishing opportunities for the Fraser sockeye will likely be limited to First Nations food, social and ceremonial fisheries, unless returns greatly exceed the government's projections, Nener said.
More work to be done
The DFO says it will continue to monitor water temperatures and manage the seasonal harvests, but according to Chief Bob Chamberlin, chairman of the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance, more needs to be done to protect struggling salmon populations in the wake of rising ocean and river temperatures.
"We can't have one department approaching a solution when it is going to take the cohesive work of a number of federal departments and provincial ministries," said Chamberlin,
According to Chamberlin, the federal government needs to revise its current salmon conservation strategy in the wake of climate change.
"Global warming is real, it's here" he said, adding that he's especially alarmed at the increased presence of pathogens in salmon habitats due to the rising temperatures.
"It's going to take a lot more than we've done today," he said.