Outlook is dismal for B.C.'s wild salmon
Published on: September 10, 2016
Wild B.C. salmon may be on its way to luxury item status.
“We are seeing prices beyond what I ever expected it to reach,” said Guy Dean, vice-president of Albion Fisheries. “King salmon (Chinook) are going for $13 or $14 a pound in whole form, not even filets. It’s starting to become a luxury item.”
That’s if you can buy it at all.
The wild catch of B.C. salmon has declined nearly 80 per cent since 1990, according to statistics supplied by the Ministry of Agriculture. Aquaculture has replaced nearly all of that decline, and today produces about three quarters of B.C.’s total salmon haul.
The Fraser River sockeye fishery was closed altogether this year based on spawner return estimates of just 853,000 fish, numbers once reckoned in the tens of millions. It is the worst return in 120 years, according to the Pacific Salmon Commission.
The Fraser River sockeye may well be the canary in the climate-change coal mine, a harbinger of the decline of wild fisheries around the world expected to result from rising ocean temperatures, changing salinity and oxygen levels.
A University of B.C. study released this week projects global fishing revenue will drop seven to 10 per cent by 2050.
Cold-water species such as salmon are already dropping as a proportion of the world’s wild caught fish, said co-author William Cheung, a professor at UBC’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries.
Another study co-authored by Cheung released earlier this year estimates that the geographic range of commercially important fish in B.C. will move north by 10 to 18 kilometres per decade in the coming years, permanently altering the viability of fisheries on the South Coast. The catch available to First Nations communities most dependent on food fisheries could drop by 50 per cent for herring and 29 per cent for salmon.
Salmon abundance is also affected by decades-long fluctuations in ocean temperature, in which warm parts of the cycle are associated with poor fisheries in southern waters.
“As ocean temperatures rise generally we will see that problem exacerbated,” said Cheung. “Sockeye physiology is very sensitive to temperature, and we see warmer temperatures in the Fraser River associated with high mortality.”
Warm ocean conditions last year also resulted in a coast-wide outbreak of sea lice that led to increased infestations on ocean-based salmon farms and on wild salmon. Sea lice are associated with increased mortality in juvenile salmon.
As if to put an exclamation point on a dismal outlook for Pacific salmon, four chinook and coho fisheries on the South Coast were red-listed by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program earlier this week.
Consumers should be aware, though, that little if any of the fish rated as “avoid” would have made it to market this year. About 99 per cent of the coho and chinook in stores comes from fisheries that are rated as “good alternatives”.
Demand for fresh wild B.C. salmon is strong, but it is increasingly sold at a significant price premium, and only when it is available. So, as our wild catch continues its steady decline, salmon farmers are set to begin a modest expansion.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada issued four new aquaculture licences for the West Coast last summer, three of which are beginning operations this year. A handful of other farms have been expanded.
“Our five-year plan calls for an increase of 12,000 metric tonnes, about 14 per cent,” Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick said in an interview. “That’s all the growth we have planned, and that is mostly salmon.”
The government is continuing to accept applications, but all approvals are on hold while Letnick awaits a report from a minister’s advisory committee on finfish that will make recommendations on the future of the marine-based aquaculture industry.
“We have to ensure that aquaculture operations are socially and ecologically sustainable and can co-exist with our wild fishery resource,” Letnick said.
The food service industry tends to favour farmed salmon because the size and cost of the fish is consistent, it’s available every day of the year, and its high fat content keeps cooked portions from drying out.
Farmed Atlantic salmon is already the province’s top seafood export, worth $255 million a year, more than all wild salmon varieties combined.
“There is a market for our farmed salmon pretty much everywhere outside of B.C.,” said Dean. “But I see inroads being made in B.C., too.”
The farmed vs. wild debate is somewhat muted beyond our provincial borders, but larger firms with corporate responsibility goals are paying attention to how the aquaculture industry conducts itself.
That’s why the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association has pledged to see every salmon farm in the province certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council by 2020. ASC’s certification program was developed by the World Wildlife Fund in cooperation with the aquaculture industry.
“It’s incredibly labour intensive and expensive but we are committed to getting everyone certified,” said executive director Jeremy Dunn.
In just under three years, Cermaq has achieved certification at five of 27 locations. Marine Harvest has certified four sites and is in process at six others.
Despite that progress, the debate over ocean-based salmon farms remains highly polarized, dominated by environmental groups and many First Nations that consider net-pen farms vectors for disease and infestations that harm wild salmon.
“We learned from the Cohen Commission that there are many stressors on wild salmon,” said Chief Bob Chamberlin, chair of the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance. “Some of these stressors are beyond our reach to change, but let’s identify which ones are within our reach to change and create a situation in which wild salmon can head out to the ocean in the highest possible numbers.”
First on Chamberlin’s list is net-pens salmon farms.
“Mining, logging, oil and gas, all these industries have evolved,” said Chamberlin. “It’s time now for the fish farms to get out of the ocean and move to land-based closed containment, it’s time for that evolution.”
The question is less clear cut at the DFO, where scientists are sorting through a myriad of potential smoking guns to explain the general decline in salmon abundance, said Jennifer Nener, director of salmon, Pacific region
“Over the past 20 years we’ve seen declines in marine productivity, in particular with coho which we have had significant concerns about since the late 90s,” she said. “With the Fraser River sockeye, we’ve seen more variable returns with some really high years and some really low years.”
The factors affecting the health of salmon fisheries are enormously complex, a problem compounded by the fact that much of the salmon life cycle plays out beyond our observation in a kind of oceanic black box.
“It’s difficult to unravel because returns have been so inconsistent,” she said. “This year we are wondering whether the infamous warm blob is responsible for the weak (Fraser River) sockeye return, but other stocks have done very well.”