From the Archipelago: Another Chance to Get It Right

December 05-January 2006

This is an article from WaveLength Magazine, available in print in North America and globally on the web.
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by Alexandra Morton

After the long, dry days of summer, the early evenings of fall and water falling from the heavens are welcome. We are cleansed by these rains and I’m glad our weather remains predictable at this time of planetary instability.

I also wish to report that the Broughton Archipelago, where I live, was given a reprieve this fall. Against the odds, enough salmon have returned that we have an opportunity for this life force to rebound. In Alaska, the pink salmon run was well above average. Prince William Sound was the second or third highest on record, and Kodiak is on track to have its third highest harvest on record. People on the Skeena report that three times as many pink salmon returned as were expected. The recently beleaguered east Vancouver Island rivers apparently saw good pink returns and the Fraser River even hosted a pink salmon fishery. Yet more extraordinary, while big runs usually produce small fish, these were big fish. This is all due to the fact that open ocean conditions favored pink salmon on this cycle. For the Broughton, this meant a complete crash was avoided. However, there has been a great deal of confusion about what went on here, so let me explain.

The Broughton has seven major pink salmon rivers. The two biggest producers are the Kakweikan and the Glendale. Fish farmers and their supporters such as the federal department of Fisheries (DFO) report that the 2005 Glendale pink salmon run was higher than the 50 year average. While this statement is technically true, it is misleading. In 1989, a spawning channel was dredged which considerably boosted the Glendale River’s capacity. The Glendale of today is not the same river as pre-1989. In a year like this, where ocean survival benefited pink salmon, the Glendale should have hosted over a million spawners as it did two cycles ago (the ‘grandparents’ of the fish spawning now). By averaging Glendale returns over 50 years, the altered capacity of this river is masked, and this year’s run measures up well. So while the current DFO estimate of 178,700 pink salmon is indeed above the 50 year average of 121,995, it is substantially below this river’s current capacity.

Black and white photo of Hunchback whale

However, not all Broughton Rivers got a reprieve from critically low numbers. The 2005 Glendale River pinks make up 85% of all pinks in the Broughton, again masking the real story. Individually, the rivers did not fare nearly so well. The Embley River had zero pink salmon return and two of the largest systems in the Broughton, the Wakeman and Kingcome, received fewer than 100 pink salmon each. These runs could well be functionally extinct. And the majority of pink salmon stocks in the Broughton continue to be in decline.

So why did the Glendale fare better than most of the rivers? First, we cannot know with certainty that the returning fish were all Broughton pinks. We did get a number of large sockeye back to the Viner River this fall, for example, and traditionally, sockeye don’t have a run in that river. Pinks also have the highest straying rate of any salmon species, meaniing they do not always return to their natal rivers. Thus their DNA is too well mixed to scientifically assign a specific fish to a specific river.

Second, the Glendale River pink salmon fry have two available routes to sea. The majority appear to travel via Tribune Channel, but we also find fry traveling more directly to sea via Knight Inlet. My research strongly suggests the majority of fry that migrated via the primary migration route of Tribune and Fife Sound did not survive: 95% had sea lice and the ones with sea lice died (two scientific papers coming out soon). However, the lesser number of Glendale fry that traveled via Knight Inlet may have fared much better. Lower Knight Inlet receives considerable flush directly from the open waters of Queen Charlotte Strait, while Tribune Channel does not. This means the density of sea lice larvae would be more diluted in Knight Inlet than Tribune Channel. In addition, the salmon farms near Knight Inlet are not yet situated directly in the stream of the fry migration as they are in Tribune. I suspect the pink salmon we see in the Glendale this fall migrated to sea via Knight Inlet. This is further supported by the almost complete lack of adult pink salmon in Tribune this fall, but the reports of adult pinks in Knight Inlet suggest they have come back on the same route as they went to sea. The rivers deeper in the Broughton, such as the Embley, did not do so well.

However, the return of one cycle of salmon is certainly not the whole story. When I first contacted Norwegian experts on how to study sea lice, a prominent government scientist spoke plainly, saying that I would see good years and bad years, but in the end there would be no more wild salmon. You cannot harm 95% of the stock of any animal, no matter how resilient, and expect it to survive. DFO would certainly not allow a 95% stock reduction via commercial fishing! My research on the effects of sea lice confirms that sea lice kill juvenile salmon here in BC just as they do in Norway, except that it takes fewer sea lice to kill our 0.5 gram pink salmon smolts than their 40 gram Atlantic salmon smolts. We got a reprieve this year, courtesy of high ocean survival. To squander it by not allowing the next generation to go to sea unharmed would be a huge mistake.

A US television show, Boston Legal, recently included the Broughton sea lice issue in one of its episodes. You might wonder how this happened. It is because the writer of the show loves to fish in the Broughton and it is common knowledge here that important runs of most salmon species are collapsing. The lodge operators see the sea lice and, drawing on their own experience, they are concerned.

The media loves to play on the conflict here and my own motives have been described in many ways. But the fact is, the effort to save the salmon of the Broughton is out of the need for this small but epic animal. Pink salmon carry more energy to our coast than any other species. They are our bloodstream. Yes, they are small and largely unseen, but the strength of their ‘pulse’ decides the fate of the world around us.

No industry wants to deal with its wastes if they can get away with it, and the salmon feedlots are no different. But any other business or individual polluting the water the way fish farms do would be subject to severe penalties under the Fisheries Act. Until ‘closed containment’ is required for fish farms, or until DFO applies the law, this remains an unresolved scandal. Continuing to deny the impacts of fish farms on wild fish and our ecosystems will ensure that the opposition to fish farming grows.

Editor’s Note: Late word at press time is that Alex has just been awarded the Canadian Sablefish Association award of $20,000 for “Fisheries Research Pioneer” in recognition of her work on fish farms, sea lice abundance and wild salmon stocks. “It takes great courage to challenge federal and provincial government scientific orthodoxy,” says Eric Wickham, Director of the Sablefish Association. Alex will share the cash award with fellow researcher Martin Krokosek.

© Alexandra Morton, R.P.Bio., is a marine mammal researcher and author.