B.C. wild salmon policy

Efforts to create a made-in-B.C. strategy to assure the future abundance of wild salmon is off to a rocky start — marred by rushed consultations and a process dominated by coastal fishing interests, leaving environmentalists, scientists and interior communities on the outside looking in.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

B.C.’s “wild salmon strategy” was launched in June of 2018, with high hopes to restore “healthy and abundant wild salmon stocks in B.C.”

Premier John Horgan appointed 14 British Columbians to a council to guide policy development — a specialist group tasked with recommending the policies needed to ensure the future of wild salmon and fish-dependent communities.

Aaron Hill, executive director of Watershed Watch Salmon Society, was an early supporter of this process.

“We were so excited by this idea because it could bust through the bureaucratic silos in the provincial government and between the province and the feds that really hamper more effective wild salmon management,” Hill told The Narwhal.

Then he saw the list of appointees.

Of the 14 council members, at least 10 have direct or indirect connections to the commercial and recreational fishing industries. There was not a single representative from environmental advocacy or from scientific academia.

And geographically, at least 11 members of the council represent communities on the coast — this despite the fact that inland freshwater is where B.C. salmon spawn and rear, and where the province has clear jurisdiction to make laws to protect salmon.

“People that don’t have a direct interest in fishing for salmon and whose primary focus is advocacy are not on the council,” said Hill.

“That’s a massive gap.”

Too much focus on commercial fishing industry: advocates

In September 2018, the council released Options for a Made-In-BC Wild Salmon Strategy  — followed by public meetings scheduled only in coastal communities. (A single Kamloops meeting was added amid outcry from the province’s interior.)

The paper presents three “interlocking” goals for the future: wild salmon restoration and enhancement, community stewardship and new economic opportunities for community-based fisheries.

“It’s all about the revitalization of the commercial fishing industry, with lots on building hatcheries and wacking seals,” Hill says. “But if they really want to produce more fish, the first place to start is by restoring and protecting the natural habitats that the province has direct jurisdiction over.”

Deana Machin, the strategic development manager of the First Nations Fisheries Council, which works with B.C. First Nations to protect, reconcile and advance First Nations fishing rights, says her organization was happy to see the council’s intent to work and engage with First Nations, but the engagement following the report release was inadequate.

“The feeling was, it was a very fast process [after the release of the Options paper],” she says. “The engagement and consultation has not be as robust as we would have liked.”

The expansion of hatchery production

A recurring theme in the strategy paper is the imperative to expand the production of B.C. salmon from hatcheries, including Alaska-styled coastal salmon ranching. (In the latter, salmon are raised in pens and released by private interests, which then recoup their investment by getting the first stab at fishing when the fish return.)

In a written response to the council, Simon Fraser University salmon biologist Jon Moore sought to correct the council’s “serious scientific inaccuracies” in the report. This includes the assertion that “research is inadequate” to address the potential impacts of hatcheries, including the interactions of wild and enhanced fish in the ocean.

“The science is clear,” Moore wrote to the council, “hatcheries have repeatedly [been] shown to seriously harm wild populations both at broad and local scales.”

In an interview with The Narwhal, Moore said expanding hatcheries can overstep the carrying capacity of the ocean.

“The science is increasingly strong showing that the ocean is at capacity when it comes to salmon, and that adding more hatchery fish has really negative effects on wild stocks.”

This said, hatcheries have a future role to play in B.C., Moore said — as a last resort to keep endangered runs from going extinct, and in cases where habitat has been devastated, like on the Capilano River in North Vancouver, where hatcheries now provide fish for First Nations and sport in the wake of dam construction.

“Our point is not to shut down all hatcheries, it’s just that caution is needed when thinking about ramping up [production], if the goal is to conserve wild salmon.”

Machin echoes this point. “It’s a very complex interaction between wild and enhanced [salmon] populations, and that’s something that we’d really caution the province about, to take a little bit more time to reflect on that.”

Commercial fishing perspective

Phil Young, vice president of fisheries and corporate affairs for the Canadian Fishing Company (Canfisco) — the Jimmy Pattison-owned company that controls a large piece of B.C. wild salmon marine fishing, processing and retail sales, says he found the council recommendations “somewhat simplistic.”

It’s great to say we’re going to create more fish with hatcheries and ranching, he said, but the complexity of implementation is another thing.

“Where would you situate [hatcheries], where would it fit in with the federal wild salmon policy and how would this all be accepted by the Marine Stewardship Council?” 

An international non-profit certification body, the Marine Stewardship Council gives an environmental sustainability stamp to much of the wild salmon Canfisco catches, processes and sells. Concerns have been raised about hatchery impact on wild fish, including the reality that many smaller, weaker wild stocks get scooped up in B.C. commercial marine fisheries targeting stronger hatchery-enhanced runs.

Then there is the problem of jurisdiction: “A lot of the issues in the paper are federal. There’s no way [B.C.] can do it by themselves, they’ll have to do it in conjunction with the federal government.”

Canfisco fully supports the “habitat portion” of the paper — which calls for the protection of critical habitat from loss or degradation, including the implementation of enhanced, long-term monitoring and enforcement efforts to “ensure active compliance at the highest level.”

The Skeena River. Photo: Sam Beebe / Flickr

Habitat is king

Shannon McPhail, executive director of the Hazelton-based Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition, is frustrated that the strategy is focused on coastal marine areas — neglecting the fresh water salmon habitat of the B.C. interior.

This includes the Skeena river watershed, one of B.C.’s most important river systems for wild salmon, worth about $110 million annually. The Skeena’s Babine sub-basin, for example, the source of more than 90 per cent of the Skeena’s sockeye, is threatened by climate change and run-away logging and road building, the latter permitted by the province.  

It’s here that the Lake Babine Nation has been fighting to keep salmon alive, not only from habitat destruction, but climate change impacts as well. Amid high water temperatures and low water levels last year, most of the fish that return to natal streams around Lake Babine didn’t survive their passage to their spawning channels. (Lake Babine Nation’s fisheries director did not return calls by deadline).

“If the salmon don’t have a place to spawn, hatch, grow for the first year of their lives before they migrate out to the ocean, if that habitat is gone or destroyed, there is no fish on the coast,” McPhail says.

McPhail’s advice? B.C. needs a wild salmon strategy, but before we tackle that, the federal government’s wild salmon policy — started more than a decade ago to “restore and maintain healthy and diverse salmon populations and their habitats”  — needs to be fully implemented.

“Why not operationalize the wild salmon policy as a starting point for the B.C. wild salmon strategy? Because that work has already been done — you’ve got everybody in there, First Nations, DFO, biologists, from all sorts of different backgrounds, it’s been hugely consulted, so let’s start there.”

Process(es) galore

Despite criticisms of process and content, many of the people interviewed for this story were also happy the provincial government was taking an interest in the future of wild salmon.

But along with this came a fear of process overload.

There are already so many processes and action items — from the unfinished implementation of the federal wild salmon policy and the Cohen Report recommendations to name two — that it’s possible the need to take immediate action to protect salmon could get lost amid endless processes.

“There is a need for government to move past consultation and process and to action, that’s enormously important,” Moore says. “One must worry that this is another process that isn’t going to be followed through on.”

The question of funding, and how much the province will invest in the strategy, will say a lot about what happens next.

When B.C. tabled its 2019 budget last week, the word salmon didn’t appear. Why were no funds explicitly earmarked in Budget 2019 for wild salmon?  

Government is still figuring that out, according to a spokesperson with the Ministry of Agriculture. (The Narwhal requested an interview with the Premier’s office for this story, but instead received minimal information by e-mail.)

More details will be forthcoming after the follow-up report to the council’s paper is unveiled in the next month.

“Expect government’s response following that.”

Christopher Pollon is a Vancouver-based independent journalist who reports on the politics of natural resources, focusing on energy, mines and…

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