Craig Orr: A call to action on B.C. sockeye salmon

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      By Craig Orr

      Back in the late ’70s, I was cruising the coast of Newfoundland when my friend (who shall remain nameless) screeched to a halt in front of the weathered shack of a cod fisherman. Grabbing a bottle of rum laying on the seat, my friend consummated a trade that, while perhaps not entirely legal, was certainly delicious.

      At the time, I had no clue I would soon witness the collapse of one of the world’s great biomasses. History, it seems, has a rather nasty penchant for repeating itself.

      The total return of Fraser River sockeye salmon in 2009 was the lowest in over 50 years. Scientists now tell us that the productivity of Fraser River sockeye, which is the number of adults produced per spawner, has been declining since the mid 1990s to the point where Fraser sockeye are barely able to replace themselves.

      How could this have happened? How could a record 130 million baby sockeye from the Quesnel and Chilko rivers produce fewer than a million and a half returning adults?

      Scientists recently grappled with these and other questions at a sockeye “think tank”. In the end, no smoking gun was revealed. Scientists had to admit they couldn’t pinpoint the cause(s) of the collapse, but all signs pointed to problems in the near-shore marine environment, with climate change an overarching concern.

      A statement from the think tank called for the “need to increase Canadian research and action on the marine coastal environment and on climate impacts”. All this should start now; we cannot afford to wait 18 months until we get the results of a recently announced judicial inquiry into our sockeye woes.

      We also “need to be more realistic in our expectations for the accuracy of forecasts”. No kidding. In the 10 years prior to the 2009 collapse, 70 percent of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Fraser sockeye forecasts have overestimated actual sockeye returns. The usually staid scientists at the sockeye gathering also stated we must be prepared for the need for continued fishery closures, as well as even bolder action, including the removal of farmed salmon from juvenile sockeye migration routes.

      In the face of these developments, it seems scarcely believable that the London-based Marine Stewardship Council is very close to decreeing many sockeye fisheries in B.C.—including the Fraser River fisheries—as certifiably sustainable. An announcement is imminent that the MSC will indeed bestow its stamp of approval on B.C.’s sockeye fisheries. All this, despite sockeye think tanks and inquiries, outstanding technical critiques, a recent International Union for Conservation of Nature report “red-listing” many B.C. sockeye stocks, and a review that found no evidence that MSC certification of anything, anywhere, has successfully protected biodiversity.

      The current situation is far from sustainable. No artificial certification can sugar-coat this mess. If we don’t wish to see Fraser sockeye go the way of the cod, we must get serious about protecting wild salmon, and break the destructive pattern that B.C. ecologist Buzz Holling calls “the pathology of regional resource management and development”. It also seems wise to heed, not ignore, lessons from the cod collapse. One particularly sobering warning came from Jeff Hutchings—the foremost authority on the cod fiasco—who told the sockeye think tank that the biggest mistake we could still repeat is “not acting soon enough”.

      Craig Orr is an ecologist and the executive director of Watershed Watch Salmon Society. He participated in the Adapting to Change think tank on Fraser River sockeye from December 7 to 8.