Chinook - Kevin Cass

Where have all the fish gone?

In our latest newsletter, we examine the alarming crashes in fish populations from the Fraser River to the Yukon River and everywhere in between

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Returns of adult sockeye salmon in B.C.’s Fraser River were supposed to clock in at nearly one million this year. Instead, the forecast has been revised down to what would be a record-low return of 283,000.

Head north to Yukon, and it’s a similar story. Officials had expected to see 50,000 chinook salmon cross the border from Alaska in the Yukon River. Instead, just 29,570 have made it across.

The exact reasons for these alarming numbers are hard to pinpoint, but there are some obvious culprits, including climate change. That can be seen through warming waters, which force salmon to expend more energy while also boosting the presence of predators like California sea lions.

Industrial projects like Roberts Bank Terminal 2, a container terminal that could destroy 177 hectares of salmon habitat in the Fraser estuary, threaten to make the situation even worse.

fraser river sockeye salmon returns chart

Graph: Arik Ligeti / The Narwhal

Beyond the salmon shortfalls in Yukon and the Fraser, another fish crisis made news this week when the federal government announced it will take part in an environmental review of what would be one of Canada’s largest mines. 

That project, Castle Mountain, would expand Teck Resources’ coal mining operations in B.C.’s Elk Valley, where the population of a unique trout population recently dropped by 93 per cent. Selenium pollution — which originates from the mines’ waste rock piles and can cause reproductive failure in fish — has been increasing in the region for decades.

In deciding to review Castle Mountain, the federal government acknowledged that the project has the potential to cause “adverse effects” to fish habitat and Indigenous peoples. Even U.S. government agencies are sounding the alarm about selenium levels in a Montana watershed downstream of Teck’s B.C. mines.

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As if that wasn’t enough in the way of fish troubles,  there are also concerns about potential transboundary selenium pollution along B.C.’s border with Alaska, where Toronto-based Seabridge Gold wants to mine one of Canada’s largest undeveloped gold deposits.

So what’s the solution? Advocates want to see stronger action from the federal government, including following through on a promise to take a collaborative approach with First Nations on fisheries conservation. Other options include a ban on some net-pen salmon farming and stronger oversight of fisheries.

“I’m hoping the [government] will do something,” Chief Wayne Sparrow of Musqueam Indian Band told The Narwhal’s reporter Stephanie Wood. “Or else, we will be telling our grandkids that there used to be salmon in the Fraser River.”

“I don’t think it’s too late, but we’re at five minutes to midnight.”

Take care and protect the fish,

Arik Ligeti
Audience Engagement Editor

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Priya Bhat knew The Narwhal was just what she was looking for when seeking a practicum as a student in the University of British Columbia’s journalism program. And it turned out it was a great fit for us, too! Priya just wrapped up her time in our pod, where she got the chance to do everything from copy editing to social media posting to reporting.

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This week in The Narwhal

Four reasons 2020 is set to see the lowest Fraser River sockeye salmon return on record

Sockeye salmon Fraser River B.C.

By Stephanie Wood

Even a low-ball prediction for the number of sockeye returning to B.C. river was too high and First Nations and conservationists say government mismanagement and lice infestations are partly to blame. Read more.

Ottawa to review Teck’s Castle Mountain coal mine in B.C. amid concerns over fish habitat

Teck Elk Valley mines waste rock

By Ainslie Cruickshank

The federal decision comes on the heels of new research from the U.S. Geological Survey that will help inform selenium guidelines to ensure the safety of fish in a cross-border lake. Read more.

Climate change is causing more rain in the North. That’s bad news for permafrost

Permafrost thaw precipitation Yukon Alaska

By Julien Gignac

A new study shows wetter weather is thawing the frozen ground that covers a quarter of the northern hemisphere, threatening to release massive stores of carbon. Read more.  

Cleaning up B.C.’s Tulsequah Chief mine will cost $48.7 million

Colin Arisman Tulsequah Chief Tulsequah River

By Matt Simmons

A final remediation plan released by the provincial government this week is seen as a positive step in ending six decades of pollution from the mine on the Alaska border — but it’s still unclear who’ll foot the bill. Read more.    

The enduring mysteries of the wild river

Philip Lee Restigouche The Long Run of the Wild River

By Philip Lee

‘Our knowledge of natural systems is deeper and richer than at any time in human history, yet it is still so awash with mysteries that our actions run ahead of our understanding of their consequences,’ Lee writes in this excerpt from his book. Read more.

What we’re reading

canada climate refugees broadview magazine

ontario omnibus bill national observer

When you’re sad more isn’t being done to protect fish habitat. Tell your aquatic friends to keep up with our coverage by signing up for our email newsletter.

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