First Nations try to turn the tide on 'heartbreaking' decline in salmon population

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.
Bob Chamberlin at Ambleside Park in West Vancouver. He served three terms as vice-president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. (Jennifer Chrumka/CBC)

This segment originally aired on Dec. 6, 2020.

"I really feel we need to begin to understand the broader benefit of salmon," said Bob Chamberlin as he looked across the ocean from Ambleside Park in West Vancouver. "We have to realize what it contributes to the environment... there are just so many dominoes that will fall over when the fish are all gone. It's heartbreaking." 

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.

Sockeye salmon in the Adams River near Shuswap Lake, B.C. (Chris Corday)
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.
"Salmon is who we are as First Nation people," said Chamberlin. He explained that not only does wild salmon play a critical role in ceremonial, cultural and social events, but First Nations in B.C. rely on salmon as a traditional food source.

Craig Orr is a professional ecologist. He splits his time as the conservation advisor with Watershed Watch Salmon Society and as the environmental advisor to Kwikwetlem First Nation. (Jennifer Chrumka/CBC)
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."

Craig Orr looks out at where the Coquitlam River meets the Fraser River on the Kwikwetlem First Nation in B.C.’s Lower Mainland. (Jennifer Chrumka/CBC)
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. 
Half a dozen fishing boats tied to the dock at Fisherman’s Wharf in False Creek, B.C. (Jennifer Chrumka/CBC)
But Thomson said, "We base our analysis on the advice we receive from our science branch. They have gone through a series of risk assessment tests to look at the threats of various pathogens … particularly in the Discovery Islands … and to date, we haven't seen anything other than a minimal threat."

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.

Dane Chauvel on his fishing boat in False Creek, B.C. (Jennifer Chrumka/CBC)
"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."