BC Salmon's Future Tenuous Without Emission Reduction

"Keep your knees up so you don't whack 'em as you fly over the boulders." So I was ready for that…but not for the cold. As our two Cortes families swam out into the swift and rolling river, the cold was all I could think of. The first glimpse of the salmon, however, was a bigger shock. Schools of big chums torpedoed every which way as we floated by like maple leaves. Wow. My view of salmon was transformed by seeing them in their element. The beast on the cutting board gives no hint of their power and grace under the water.

The conditions that day were perfect. Not for us necessarily, but for them. Salmon need clear, cold, flowing rivers year-round.

But a converging mess of climate changes has the future of BC salmon in doubt. We are at a crossroads. Our actions halting climate change in the next few years will decide many things, including whether we have salmon in our rivers and oceans.

Voices of Concern

In reading dozens of articles, websites and scientific studies, I was amazed at the wide range of people deeply concerned about salmon and climate changes. Here are a few:

(*) The Pacific Fisheries Resource Conservation Council, a government advisory body, reports some southern BC streams “may simply become uninhabitable to salmon. Every one of their life phases is directly impacted by climate change. The freshwater flows are changing in rivers. The rain and snowfall patterns are changing. Salmon face warmer rivers, warming oceans, more acidic oceans, different predators and food shortages. The whole nine yards of problems.” They call for dramatic action now before stocks collapse.

(*) Scientific studies say that the entire Adams River watershed – one of B.C.'s most important sockeye streams, with runs of millions of salmon in some years – could lose its salmon if temperatures increase just a few degrees.

(*) A 2007 NOAA study documents a “large negative impact of climate change on freshwater salmon habitat…most pronounced in relatively pristine, high-elevation streams and in river basins that receive snow.”

(*) The US National Wildlife Federation predicts dramatic loss of crucial NW tidal areas due to rising sea levels. Chinook, chum, coho and pink salmon are all at risk.

(*) Dr. Richard Feely at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Lab says all North Pacific fisheries are at risk from ocean acidification. “Increasing CO2 concentrations in the ocean has a very deleterious impact on many forms of marine organisms."

(*) United Fishermen of Alaska President Joe Childers agrees: "it's going to be very, very significant impact on fisheries of the North Pacific. It could potentially eliminate a lot of them."

(*) Dave Barrett of the DFO's commercial salmon advisory board says if global warming continues to increase its long-term impacts, the commercial sector will need to seriously consider its future. "The industry is on its knees."

(*) Avid fisher, big-wall climber, and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard: “I’ve been going up to BC for 30 or 40 years, and all the little pocket glaciers on the coast range have receded. They have withered down to two-thirds the size of what they were. I think BC’s going to lose all the salmon streams as a result…Now the summer water temperatures are getting up into the 70s, which is death for salmon. So probably the only places in the world that’ll have salmon are Alaska and Russia. I’m not talking 50 years from now; I’m talking right now…I see it. Oh, my God, it’s unbelievable. When I go salmon fishing I look at myself as witnessing the end of the species.”

The Climate Threats

Climate change is hurting every part of BC salmon’s life-cycle. From eggs to spawners, our salmon fight each day to survive our increasing CO2 emissions. Fewer are making it.

1: Born into Changing Rivers

Historically, big snowpacks in the mountains store winter precipitation, melting slowly through the summer. But global warming is causing more winter rain and less snow. Winter flooding is increasing. The spring rise is happening 10 to 30 days sooner. The Fraser River rise passes Hope 11 days earlier. Flooding is scouring eggs from spawning beds. Warmer water is making eggs hatch quicker, producing smaller juvenile salmon that are more likely to be eaten by predators. Warmer water is favoring fish that eat young salmon.

2: Childhood in Damaged Nurseries

Estuaries are critical habitat for juvenile salmon. Youngsters spend time there as they acclimate to ocean water. Sea level rise is threatening these nurseries. Even under moderate climate change forecasts, the Fraser delta could lose up to 33% of its tidal marshes. The Skagit Delta would lose a half-million Chinook just to sea level rise. A recent study of many NW estuaries predicts a 65% loss of estuarine beach and a 44% loss of tidal flats in the next several decades.

3: Disappearing Food

Many small “feed” fish that adult salmon eat also require these ever shrinking estuaries.

The world’s oceans are warming faster than the air. Warmer waters have less food for salmon. This is changing the food chain off the west coast. Salmon stocks get pushed northward while exotic southern species such as mackerel enter our waters. Some climate models show El Ninos becoming routine, causing even greater warming.
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