Climate change is to blame for declining B.C. salmon populations, experts say

Photo courtesy of B.C. government Fickr.
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“What has already happened is baked in — the world we live in is going to be fundamentally different 40 years from now,” said Greg Taylor, fisheries advisor for the Watershed Watch Salmon Society.

British Columbia is facing the worst salmon run on record this year and experts say warming oceans and changing river ecosystems are to blame.

“[People] will talk about all sorts of things as the problem, but that is all avoiding the issue. The real issue that is affecting salmon is the climate crisis,” said Greg Taylor, fisheries advisor for the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, an organization focused on rebuilding and protecting salmon in B.C.

Taylor said declining salmon populations is a systemic problem and it is not only affecting particular regions, but the entire B.C. coast. He said there are no First Nation records, or post-colonial records of a salmon season as bad as this year.

“It’s truly disturbing to someone like me, who has actually seen what was there and what is there now,” he said. 

Taylor began working in commercial fisheries in the 1980’s, but quit 12 years ago to pursue work with environmental organizations and First Nations to develop sustainable fishing practises.

“When I started, the rivers and streams and oceans were full of fish. Salmon were really abundant. Conservation of salmon — it was not on anybody’s consciousness,” he said. “It’s really a story of shifting baselines. [Young people] don’t recognize what is gone and what is lost.”

The loss of salmon in B.C. waters would have profound effects on British Columbians, according to Taylor. Not only is the fish an economic driver for the province, but he said it is an important piece of the province’s culture.

Salmon make up the majority of southern resident killer whales’ diet, according to Misty MacDuffee, biologist and Wild Salmon program director at the Raincoast Conservation Foundation. She said chinook salmon are normally returning to the Fraser River as early as March, until as late as November.

“All of the early part of that run has collapsed, so very few fish are showing up to the Fraser before the middle of August,” she said. She added the availability of salmon year-round is important for orcas.

Climate change has not only driven salmon populations to a record-low, but also affected spawning habits, according to MacDuffee. She said it is important for people to be aware of the way everyday activities in watersheds affect salmon populations.

“Chances are, we are living in a watershed that supports salmon and everything we do in that watershed in terms of land use; in terms of the water consumption; in terms of the contaminants, all affect salmon,” she said.

Taylor said it is important for governments to think long-term when making policies and to think about the effect decisions can have on the environment. People can make a difference to the salmon population by putting pressure on government representatives who make these decisions, Taylor said.

Salmon populations have been declining for the last 15 years, according the Taylor. He said the trend will continue if direct action is not taken to address climate change, but much of the damage cannot be reversed.

“What has already happened is baked in — the world we live in is going to be fundamentally different 40 years from now,” he said.

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