Craig Orr: Crisis is perfect time to invest in future of Fraser River sockeye salmon

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      By Craig Orr

      “Like money in the bank.” Though this was once an apt description of the annual return of millions of Fraser River sockeye, today’s sockeye are barely able to replace themselves, let alone sustain flourishing human pursuits.

      The 2009 collapse of Fraser sockeye has triggered a federal review of the problems. Teams of lawyers, scientists, support staff, and interveners are now pondering why Fraser sockeye are in such rotten shape, with the list of potential problems threatening to outstrip the remaining sockeye.

      Life is certainly no bowl of cherries for today’s Fraser sockeye. A sockeye “think tank” recently fingered a severe survival bottleneck for sockeye in coastal marine waters—and a long list of potential causes: predators, salmon farms, lack of food, and climate change. No thanks to climate change, the Fraser River itself is increasingly inhospitable. Some 1.5 C warmer since the 1950s, the Fraser is expected to heat up by another 2 C in the near future.

      For the average Fraser sockeye, things are not going so swimmingly. Thermal stress is pervasive and robs sockeye of energy, oxygen, viable eggs, and defence against fungus, parasites, and other pathogens and stressors. Research points to several “warm water events” since 1992 for the premature demise of some six million sockeye that actually reached the Fraser.

      Thermal stress is bad news for your average sockeye. And don’t count on this threat going away any time soon. Who really believes a review of the plight of Fraser sockeye, even one costing millions, will much alter Canada’s weak response to climate change? Imagine the inconvenience.

      Ah, but hope springs eternal when it comes to Fraser sockeye. Hope that things will improve. Hope that the Cohen commission can help break the slavish cycle of “crisis-review-recommend-repeat” typifying Fraser sockeye management. Even a sliver of hope we can yet act soon enough to reap the hard-earned payoffs of maintaining biodiversity.

      And there’s little doubt diverse salmon stocks perform best. Still-diverse Alaskan sockeye are doing well compared to our Fraser fish. Alaskan sockeye perform more like a diversified stock portfolio and that diversity “stabilizes ecosystem processes and services”, enhances sockeye production, and limits fisheries closures.

      These lessons should not be lost in B.C. We might liken our increasingly-fragile-but-still-rich tapestry of Fraser sockeye to a shake roof. Each shake or shingle provides “an overlapping reinforcement of function that is remarkably robust”, according to Canada’s ecological guru, “Buzz” Holling. Such “imbricated redundancy” means we can afford to lose a few shingles—or stocks of sockeye—without a roof or sockeye population undergoing catastrophic collapse. But take too many away, and all bets are off.

      It’s hardly news the Cohen review is up against long odds when it comes to protecting biodiversity values. Canada’s woeful Species at Risk Act only protects things found in remote areas we don’t eat. Cultus sockeye? Underperformers. Protecting them seriously constrains us from fully cashing in early on more abundant stocks, like Quesnel and Chilko sockeye.

      Instead of promoting the federal Wild Salmon Policy and its vision to protect diversity and function, we’re left to ponder how the Marine Stewardship Council—conveniently based in London, England—is on the verge of proclaiming Fraser River sockeye as sustainably managed? Instead of pulling all stops to protect Fraser sockeye, we witness governments bending in all directions to promote unsustainable open net-cage salmon farming. Instead of protecting habitat important to Fraser sockeye and other salmon, we flinch as governments weaken habitat protection legislation, and willingly sacrifice rivers to seasonal power production, gravel extraction, and other private interests.

      It’s thus somewhat ironic that a campaign is underway in B.C. promoting the wild salmon as BC’s official fish. Some might argue this is foolhardy, given the way Fraser sockeye stocks are performing. Others might argue in favour of making a much larger investment in wild salmon—morally, financially, and ethically—to honour sound ecological and economic governance.

      At the risk of running afoul of any regulators, let me offer an insider tip: invest heavily in the over-performing Chilko Lake stock. Chilko sockeye are truly the Super Sockeye of the Fraser, boasting the highest energy reserves, the most torpedo-shaped body (good swimmers), the largest heart, and the greatest tolerance to high temperatures amongst sockeye.

      A good investment to be sure, but the Alaskan study is a stark reminder that today’s underperformers may be tomorrow’s stars—and vice-versa. And no one needs fancy credentials or large budgets to know it’s unwise to put all your eggs in one basket or to spend like there’s no tomorrow.

      As some wag also said, never waste a good crisis. Today’s crisis is the perfect time to invest heavily in the future of Fraser sockeye.

      Craig Orr is an ecologist and the executive director of Watershed Watch Salmon Society.