Migrating sockeye in the Fraser River August 7, 2007. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

Migrating sockeye in the Fraser River August 7, 2007. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

Column: Serious concerns for Fraser River sockeye salmon runs

Great Outdoors by James Murray

By James Murray


Normally at this time of year I would be looking forward to salmon season.

My fishing gear would be organized and ready, and I would be eagerly anticipating heading out to any number of fishing sights on the Fraser River where I could cast my line to sockeye, chum and coho – sockeye being my favourite to both catch and eat. The problem is that for the past couple of years there have been closures for sockeye on the Fraser.

The salmon are in trouble.

Scientists with the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) attribute the decline of the Fraser River fish stocks to the poor survival rate of salmon while in the ocean. According to their studies, young fish are suffering high mortality rates as they move from the Fraser River into saltwater conditions, and are subsequently finding less food to eat in the Pacific Ocean in the years spent maturing to adults.

The DFO says they “have some serious concerns” about the Fraser River sockeye runs. That seems like a bit of an understatement.

In the past couple of years, the B. C. Salmon Marketing Council has made a “major push” to promote salmon species other than sockeye, most notably pinks and chum. Traditionally, B.C. has exported canned salmon to countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, as well as frozen salmon to European and Japanese markets. And, while B.C.’s salmon catches have been in steady decline, countries such as Russia, Japan and Alaska have been experiencing bumper harvests. Massive harvesting and processing vessels are now sailing the oceans completely uncontrolled.

All the while, the list of seafood options for consumers continues to grow, including farmed salmon and less-expensive fish species such as hake, which is now taken in large numbers off the coast of B.C., basa, a type of catfish native to the Mekong River Delta in Vietnam and tilapia. I couldn’t even tell you what a tilapia looks like, never mind where it comes from.

Read more: Study uncovers B.C. female salmon dying 2x the rate of males

Read more: Record-low returns continue for Fraser sockeye despite success of Big Bar passage

The problem is, as consumers, half the time we don’t even know what we are eating. In packaging, hake is sometimes labeled with the descriptive words “halibut family.” Hake, a fish with white flaky meat is, in fact, not a member of the halibut family. A number of major food retailers now sell “wild Pacific salmon” which is a frozen chum processed in China and caught off the waters of northeast Japan.

International fishing and processing practices are only adding to the problems of the B.C. fishery. It’s all quite a kettle of fish.

There are literally thousands of genetically distinct salmon stocks, each genetically adapted to cope with the unique conditions of the specific streams from where they came. A 1996 American Fisheries Society report states that 142 salmon stocks have become extinct in B.C. and the Yukon, while another 624 stocks are at high risk… due primarily to habitat destruction. Salmon have also been hard hit by poachers, commercial over-fishing and salmon farms which, it would seem, have introduced diseases to wild stock from non-indigenous Atlantic farmed stock.

A number of independent studies have confirmed that fish, which have escaped from fish farms, have also successfully spawned with wild salmon… something that pro-fish farm scientists said could never happen.

Adding to all of this is the reality that there is currently little substantive legislation to protect wild salmon stocks in B.C. The Fish Protection Act is based on voluntary compliance and is focused on urban streams. The Forest Practices Code, recently gutted of environmental regulations, has simply failed to protect wild salmon habitat, while the Federal Fisheries Act fails to prevent logging and mining practices which also contribute to fish habitat damage and loss in general.

Meanwhile, the federal government, which spent millions of dollars on the Cohen Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River (2009), has completed few of the commission’s 75 recommendations.

The future of B.C.’s salmon stocks looked grim indeed.

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