Salmon, cod and the plight of at-risk fish in Canada

In our latest newsletter, we report back on our Black Friday member appeal, dive into some fishy numbers and share the latest, ahem, developments in Ontario
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GIF of a narwhal's tusk nearing 300, signifying our member goal
Wow, we have a whole lot of people to welcome to our pod! A whopping 240 readers signed up as members of The Narwhal over the Black Friday weekend, which means we’re only 60 people away from reaching our 2022 goal. Thanks to the generous support of our monthly and annual members, we’re able to keep doing the kind of investigative journalism we’ll tell you about in today’s newsletter…
Fishing rods hanging off a boat
“We have the right to fish, but with no fish, there’s no right.”

That’s what Stu Barnes, chair of the Skeena Fisheries Commission, told journalist Jenn Thornhill Verma, citing the low Pacific salmon runs devastating Indigenous communities across B.C.

It’s no secret the tasty species also happens to be quite lucrative, hauling in $22 million in 2020. Another thing about threatened Pacific salmon? They’re not listed on Canada’s species at risk registry — and they’re far from alone.

Jenn spent months crunching the numbers and found less than a tenth of at-risk fish that are commercially valuable have been granted much-needed federal recognition. Put simply, the tastier the fish, the less likely it is to be protected in Canada.

“For a long time, I thought that what happened to Atlantic cod is something that happened in Newfoundland and Labrador and couldn’t possibly happen elsewhere,” Jenn told me, referring to the 30-year moratorium that has seemingly failed to help the fish. “Now, I’m fully aware that not only can it happen … it is happening.”

When those fisheries were shuttered, five Atlantic cod populations were recommended to be listed under the species at risk registry. The federal government still hasn’t listed any of them, and Pacific salmon populations seem to be on a similar trajectory: just three of the 48 species recommended for protections have received a designation.
Data visualization of three darkened fish signifying federal protections, amid 48 orange unprotected species of Pacific salmon. Blue background, fish aligned in a 4X12 fashion.
Jenn’s work was a massive undertaking: the data analysis was reviewed by a pair of outside experts before landing in the hands of The Narwhal’s art director, Shawn Parkinson, who helped make the story sing with these immersive illustrations.
A recent auditor general’s report also probed this issue and came to a similar conclusion: Fisheries and Oceans Canada is failing to protect imperilled species.

The number of fish species at risk is increasing in Canada. If existing federal practices continue, scientists say more species and populations could face decline — and even extinction.

For Barnes, a member of Kispiox First Nation, these practices fail the people who have their boots firmly planted in the river.

“We need to be thinking about what’s best for the fish, not what’s best for our pockets,” he told Jenn.

The plight of fish is just one piece of a crisis: there are more than 5,000 species at some risk of extinction in Canada, and in B.C. you’ll find (or not) vanishing lichen pointing to a looming ecological collapse in a rare rainforest, or ongoing clearcutting plans that will leave endangered caribou even more vulnerable.

Meanwhile, the global biodiversity conference, COP15, kicks off in Montreal next week, and we’ll be there watching closely to see how Canada and governments around the world respond. Speaking of which: if you had the chance to ask federal or provincial leaders about biodiversity, what would you ask? Let us know.

Take care and don’t fish for compliments,

Karan Saxena
Audience fellow
Illustrated map of the Greenbelt with animals

We’ve got more Ontario developments

Latest in the series of unfortunate events for Ontario’s environmental protections — which reporters Fatima Syed and Emma McIntosh have been covering relentlessly — is a scathing report by the province’s auditor general, Bonnie Lysyk. 

The findings? Underfunded, disorganized flood management practices, an ill-prepared provincial power generator in the wake of a projected energy crisis, billions in damages from invasive species and … the Greenbelt.

Remember the Bradford Bypass that would cut through the protected area? When the Progressive Conservatives first proposed it, they said it would cost $800 million. Lysyk says the pricetag has skyrocketed to somewhere between $2 billion and $4 billion. Oh, and she found the province isn’t doing enough to protect yet another chunk of the Greenbelt — the Niagara Escarpment.

Speaking of the Greenbelt, if Lysyk didn’t have her hands full already, NDP MPP Marit Stiles asked her to probe how much landowners stand to benefit — on the heels of an investigation by The Narwhal and the Toronto Star that revealed a number of developers  recently bought Greenbelt land that has since been opened up. Now, the Greens are also asking the province’s integrity commissioner to see if Doug Ford’s government shared insider information with those developers (Ford says no advance notice was given).

If you’re still trying to wrap your head around all of this, we got you: Emma and Fatima answered a bunch of questions this week in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything). Go here to check it out!

Illustration of two narwhals rubbing tusks, with text: A lasting legacy

We recently opened our mail to find a lovely letter from a 94-year-old reader letting us know she’s included The Narwhal in her will. She didn’t want to be named, but gave us permission to refer to her as a “Narwhal advocate and believer.”

“I think you’re wonderful,” she said. “No one goes anywhere near as above and beyond as The Narwhal.”

Well, we’re blushing and very honoured.

Are you a Narwhal believer in the process of writing or updating your will? Legacy gifts provide vital, stable support for our investigative journalism and whether your estate is large or small, you can make a difference for years to come. Learn more about how to name The Narwhal in your will.


This week in The Narwhal

Hands picking grass in a field
How can Canada stop the biodiversity crisis? Step back and centre Indigenous Peoples
By Stephanie Wood 
Against the backdrop of the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history, Canada is hosting COP15, a pivotal global biodiversity summit. Here’s how Indigenous-led conservation is bringing much-needed ambition and hope to the negotiations.

Governments are subsidizing the destruction of nature even as they promise to protect it
By Ainslie Cruickshank
Imperial Oil ‘repeatedly failed’ to tell landowners about contamination: Saskatchewan government
By Drew Anderson
Photo of Floyd George, president of Cedar Lake Fisheries
Manitoba’s wild-caught fisheries pursue new markets with sustainability push
By Julia-Simone Rutgers
Toronto skyline up close with construction visible, close to CN Tower
More green construction, less gravel mining: Ford walks back some environmental changes in Ontario housing bill
By Fatima Syed

What we’re reading

The Staggering Price of Climate Inaction by The Tyee
Who gets to keep burning fossil fuels as the planet heats up? by Vox
At-risk fish when they see some strong federal protections kick in. They want you to tell your friends to sign up for our newsletter, so we can tell them when that happens.
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