First Nations try to turn the tide on 'heartbreaking' decline in salmon population
Chamberlin is a long-serving former chief councillor of Kwikwasut'inuxw Haxwa'mis First Nation on Gilford Island in the Broughton Archipelago off northeastern Vancouver Island. He's chair of the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance and has been fighting for greater protection for wild salmon for decades. This year his fight looks bleaker than ever.
2020 saw the lowest return of sockeye salmon in B.C.'s Fraser River since record keeping began in 1893. The Pacific Salmon Commission reports that only 288,000 sockeye returned. That compared to peak years where upwards of 20 million salmon would return, has many people concerned.
The impacts to First Nations in particular are devastating.
The impacts of such a low return are also deeply troubling for conservationists like Craig Orr, who founded the Watershed Watch Salmon Society. Orr knows just about every bend in the Coquitlam (Kwikwetlem) River as he's worked tirelessly to repair a watershed that has been heavily impacted by urbanization and industry.
"[Salmon] are the heart and soul of British Columbia. You go to these rivers and you see salmon and you see bears feeding on them and eagles," he said. "They're really important to us for keeping the ecosystem services going on on these rivers, and we're just not seeing as many come back now. It's quite disheartening."
Fisheries and Oceans Canada describe salmon as a complex species. As a result, "unfortunately, there's a lot of opportunities for threats to present themselves to these fish," said Andrew Thomson, regional director for Fisheries Management in the Pacific Region.
According to Thomson, those threats include habitat degradation, climate change, lack of a good food source in marine environments, and over-harvesting.
First Nations, non-governmental organizations and some scientists also point to open-net pen fish farms in coastal waters as a culprit — saying sea lice infect the wild juvenile salmon as they migrate past.
The low return of wild salmon has also drastically changed the commercial fishing industry. According to the B.C. government, the value of wild caught salmon was $235 million in 2018. Dane Chauvel runs Organic Ocean Seafood based in Richmond, B.C. They deliver seafood directly to consumers in B.C. and Ontario.
"This is an industry and I'm evidence of this, where the keys are passed down from your dad, so you would carry on and these days fishermen are telling their kids, 'don't go into fishing, go to university, get a degree, become an accountant or or a lawyer or a teacher. There's no there's no future in this.'"
There has been some positive movement forward. This fall, Bob Chamberlin travelled up the Fraser River and got 101 First Nations, fishers and eco-tourism operators to sign a letter, demanding the government remove 18 open-net fish farms near the Discovery Islands.
Also this fall, the federal government committed to transition away from open-net pens in coastal waters to a more sustainable technology by 2025. "We've got collaborative, consultative bodies being developed in order to develop this plan, but it's going to take obviously some time," said Thomson.
But Chamberlin said action is needed now.
"My concern is this coming spring … we're going to have way less smolts leaving the river. So in four years time, we're going to see even less return," he said. "This year's return is just a precursor for the extinction. And that's going to hit not just the economy, not just First Nations, it's going to hit the environment, it's going to hit the animals."