Alexandra Morton: Mark, set, go—reversing the salmon extinction trend

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      As a scientist and a grandmother, I want to make sure we don’t give up on wild salmon.

      This year, 2019, is the worst salmon return in the history of this country and the silence is terrifying. It feels like everyone is giving up.  

      Salmon are masters at the art of thriving. They are so good at it all we need to do is listen to them and here is how.

      Politics aside, the pattern of the 2019 collapse is so clear Siri could navigate it. 

      The Fraser sockeye, which swim through Atlantic salmon pathogens twice in their life history, crashed to 10 percent of what was forecast, while the Nass River return on the north coast was slightly above its 24-year average. Meanwhile in Alaska, 2019 was the 4th biggest sockeye return ever and their market value was very high.

      Pink salmon returning to the Fraser River did not swim by the salmon farms this year; 89 percent of them traveled down the west coast of Vancouver Island, thus avoiding the farms. Their return was 79 percent higher than forecast. 

      Pink salmon returns to the Oyster River, south of the salmon farms on eastern Vancouver Island, returned at double the three-generation average. However, on the opposite shoreline, 90 to 100 percent of the pinks returning to mainland rivers from Port Hardy to Sechelt vanished! Only 1/10th of 1 percent of pink salmon returned to Broughton Archipelago rivers. This collapse was predicted in paper I copublished a 2007 in the journal of Science. The data predicted pink salmon would not survive if sea lice from salmon farms kept eating juvenile wild salmon to death. We were right.

      In response to declining salmon, DFO cut commercial fishing to nearly zero, but left the sea lice. This strategy failed. Climate change is descending, but when two rivers just 70 kilometres apart see double versus zero expected returns, you know something else is in play

      Even if you want to argue that salmon farms are not the biggest impact, the research on sea lice and the highly contagious blood virus piscine orthoreovirus (PRV), makes it clear that salmon farms are the biggest removable impact. Wild salmon can’t move, salmon farms can.

      Fortunately, the federal Liberal party acknowledged that the impact of salmon farms is unacceptable to Canadians and so they offered to move the farms into closed tanks by 2025 if we elected them. Well, we elected them, so now it is time to get to work.

      Here are the nine steps that the federal government has to take to ensure survival of wild salmon:

      • Declare a wild salmon emergency
      • Appoint a West Coast minister of fisheries—and the prime minister must spell out the 2025 deadline to complete the move of fish farms into tanks in his mandate letter to the new minister of fisheries and oceans.
      • Create a director of wild salmon, Pacific Region and task her to reverse wild salmon extinction.
      • Install a $1-million fine for salmon farms exceeding sea lice levels—effective immediately.
      • Prohibit transfer of farm salmon infected with the virus PRV into marine farms, as per the law.
      • Use the powerful genomic tools that allow salmon to speak directly to us and tell us what is happening to them, so that we can strategically get to work where it matters most to them.
      • Work with every First Nation fishery team to accelerate this work.
      • Build capacity in the Canadian land-based fish farming industry that exists here in B.C. to increase employment, investment, and innovation.
      • Tell the three Norwegian-run companies that government will help them get into tanks or go home—their choice.

      Salmon feed the trees that make the oxygen we breathe. Forests fed by salmon draw down the carbon threatening our civilization. Science informs us salmon farms are the greatest known reversible extinction driver impacting wild B.C. salmon. 

      Prime Minister Justin Trudeau knows the industry has to mature and clean up.  These nine steps would restore salmon, combat climate change, engage in reconciliation, create jobs, save the southern resident orcas, and build trust in our new government. 

      Alexandra Morton is an independent biologist living and researching in Musgamagw Dzawada'enuxw/'Namgis territory. On Saturday (November 23), she will speak at TEDx Seattle. After this article was written, Justin Trudeau appointed Nova Scotia MP Bernadette Jordan as the minister of fisheries and oceans. Her mandate letter has not yet been released.