Habitat destruction, management, blamed for declining fishery

Over-fishing has not been the problem with coastal salmon stocks, according to a long-time fisherman in the Comox Valley.

Tom Gray blames it on political rhetoric and habitat destruction. Forestry, mining and agricultural practices, urban sprawl and toxic run-off from roads all contribute to declining salmon stocks. So too does soil migration — the seaward movement of material via erosion, gravity and hydraulic action. By comparison, Gray says an unaltered habitat in Alaska is critical to abundant, stable salmon runs.

“The Alaskans are probably 34 years ahead of us,” said Gray, a Fanny Bay resident who has been fishing on the north coast for 45 years. He has taught an Elder College course, Salmon and the Pacific Coast Ecosystem, at North Island College.

Gray says the Alaskan commercial coho catch is 22 times greater than Canada’s.

“What’s happening now is the balogna is in the centre,” he said. “We’re sandwiched between the Alaskans that have incredible fisheries, and the abundance showing up in Washington and Oregon. They’re putting as much as a billion dollars to bring those fish back…We are coming to the end of the road here. These fish are going extinct.”

Dick Beamish, a Nanaimo-based research scientist who has written numerous papers on the subject, feels it’s more about habitat change than habitat loss.

In the 1960s and ’70s, when ocean survival was about 15 per cent, Beamish said if someone wanted a coho for dinner, they could catch one.

“So, 15 per cent of the juvenile coho that entered the ocean either were caught in the fishery or came back to spawn,” he said. “And 15 per cent is very high. A good survival for chum salmon is three per cent. A chinook salmon, right now, is getting about one per cent.”

From the early-70s to the ’90s, he said ocean survival declined from 15 to two per cent.

“And people didn’t realize that.”

Until the early-90s, Beamish said it was believed the poor return (escapements) of coho was a result of fishing and fresh water habitat damage.

“Both of those were important, but the real reason was that the marine survival had declined so dramatically. Why does marine survival decline, and what is it that kills the coho in the ocean? That’s a much more difficult issue. In general, we don’t understand that.”

Beginning in the mid-80s, Beamish said the marine survival of coho declined in the Strait of Georgia, in Puget Sound, and off the west coast of Washington and Oregon. Because it was a “synchronous decline,” he said there has to be a larger-scale issue.

“This is a climate-related issue,” Beamish said. “We don’t understand exactly what the mechanisms are, but they would be related to food supply.”

However, Beamish notes that coho survival in the Georgia Strait has been improving since about 2012. Looking back a few decades, he applauds former fisheries minister David Anderson for regulating the Canadian commercial catch, and banning the killing of coho salmon. Though unpopular at the time, Beamish feels the decision was necessary because marine survival had declined.

“Pacific salmon in general are more abundant now than they have been in recorded history,” he said. “That’s mainly because pink and chum are doing really well.

“The oceans are warming, and they are changing, and it will affect salmon, there’s no question,” Beamish added. “We are changing the ocean ecosystems, and we don’t understand what those changes are, but it will affect the food base and it will affect salmon.”

According to DFO numbers by brood year, the Puntledge River Hatchery in Courtenay produced more than 2.6 million juvenile chum and 35,123 adult chum in 2012. For chinook, it was 1.4 million juvenile and 5,655 adults in 2012. More than 1.8 million pink juveniles and nearly 55,000 pink adults were produced in 2013. Coho numbers for 2013 were 723,047 juveniles and 1,715 adults in 2013. The number of adult salmon returning from the juveniles released will vary year-to-year, depending on environmental conditions in freshwater and the ocean.

“This production contributes to First Nation, commercial, and recreational fisheries up and down the coast,” a Fisheries and Oceans Canada statement says.

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