The number of sockeye salmon returning to the Fraser River is expected to hit a record low this summer.
“This is the lowest runsize ever estimated since estimates began in 1893,” reads an August 19 bulletin issued by the Pacific Salmon Commission (PSC).
“The exact reasons why the return fell at the lower end of the forecast range are unknown at this time, but poorer than average marine survival is a leading candidate.”
According to the PSC’s latest report, the total Fraser sockeye run for the 2016 season is an estimated 853,000 fish.
Researchers expected the 2016 run to fall below average because this year happens to be the low point for a four-year cycle of sockeye salmon on the Fraser River. But the estimate of 853,000 fish has still caught scientists by surprise because it falls well below averages for other low points in these cycles.
The PSC bulletin notes that the average number of salmon recorded during low points in four-year cycles dating from 1952 to 2012 is 3,650,000, more than four times what is estimated for 2016.
The Vancouver-based Watershed Watch Salmon Society (WWSS) responded to the news with a release that calls attention to the impacts that climate change can have on salmon runs in southern B.C.
“Canada’s most iconic salmon run is now officially on track to have their worst return in a century,” it reads. “And they are swimming into river water that is nearly 21℃, which can be lethal for salmon. Many are expected to die before spawning. These things are connected. We are reaping what we sow.”
The release also called attention to a new “climate plan” for B.C. that the Premier Christy Clark unveiled at a news conference on August 19.
The plan has been widely criticized for leaving out a 2030 target for a reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions and for failing to include an increase to the carbon tax, both of which were recommended by the province’s own panel on climate change.
The WWSS release argues that an issue like a low salmon run observed on the Fraser River is directly related to provincial environmental policies.
“What’s the connection between Premier Clark’s no-action climate plan, and your wild salmon?” it reads. “It’s pretty simple. Salmon need clean, cool water when they return to our rivers to spawn the next generation. Climate change is making our rivers warmer, on average, causing more B.C. salmon to die in our rivers before they can spawn. This is well established scientifically. It is not controversial. It is our reality.”
In April 2015, the Straight published an in-depth feature article about endangered species across British Columbia. Interviewed for that story, Jeffery Young, a scientist and policy analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation, told the Straight that overarching trends for salmon in B.C. are largely negative.
“Some of the most significant declines tend to be in sockeye salmon, coho, and chinook, particularly in the southern portion of the province,” he said. “It’s death by a thousand cuts.”
Among other risks, such as overfishing, Young described climate change as a less visible but still significant danger to salmon in B.C.
He noted that records for the Fraser River—a major spawning conduit, rare in that it runs through a major city—show temperatures have risen since at least as far back as the mid–20th century.
“Now we’re at a point where temperatures, on average, have increased about two degrees Celsius,” he said. “So far.”