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Dark Days on the Salmon Coast

World without fish

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Dark Days on the Salmon Coast

BC's most endangered rivers, combined with climate change, threaten to tip already endangered salmon poulations into extinction.

The other day, I dug out the old leather wallet that contains the best of the best among my trout and salmon flies.

There, shimmering against the woolly lining, a 50-year-old bucktail.

Its body of silver tinsel is still bright around the long shank of the hook, a tiny gorget shows a flash of red at the gills, a long cape of polar bear hair and a few streamers of iridescent peacock herl mimic the darting shape of a needlefish.

The man whose blunt fingers made the fly, who presented it to me after I took a big northern coho with it more than 30 years ago–my first on a bucktail–has been dead for almost 20 years.

He caught his first salmon not with a fly, but with a wobbly spoon hammered from the lid of a sardine tin. The 18-pound spring was taken from a dugout canoe on Cowichan Bay not long after the First World War.

The tide changed early that morning and he’d paddled out near first light. He remembered streamers of mist, the luminous pulse of jellyfish in the dark sea, the flush of dawn over the Saanich Peninsula, and the distant volcanic cone of Mount Baker.

Mostly he remembered the sound of salmon. Everywhere he looked, he said, a leaping fish. As a boy, he told me, you knew the great runs were coming because you heard them–a vast, silvery rustle down the coast, holding off the estuaries for rains to bring the rivers up on their spawning beds, and kids like him, sent out to catch a fish for dinner–the way we go to the supermarket today.

The exact abundance of salmon on the West Coast we’ll never know.

Some, basing estimates on the size of runs early in the commercial fishery and from archaeological evidence, think peak returns to the Fraser watershed alone may have topped 150 million salmon.

Similar runs of Chinook, coho, sockeye, chum, pink, and steelhead flooded into every stream, creek, river, ditch, and slough.

The BC west coast is called the Salmon Coast and its indigenous peoples the Salmon Nations, precisely because these fish, so rich in protein, fatty acids, and essential vitamins, sustained their complex and sophisticated societies for millennia.

Yet today the gift from nature has been squandered–habitat destroyed by industrial, urban, and residential development; rivers polluted; spawning beds mined for their gravel; stocks ruthlessly overfished.

And now climate change threatens to tip already depleted runs into extinction. Gone. Forever.

Last year, fewer than 1,000 Chinook returned to the Cowichan, a heritage river that once supported runs of 20,000 and had its daily catch posted in New York and London newspapers.

Just down the Saanich Inlet at Goldstream, where spawning salmon are a popular tourist attraction, only four Chinook returned–all males.

At Sakinaw Lake, not one returning sockeye was found.

Of 89 BC salmon stocks that were assessed by the federal government in 2007, 38 percent are rated as concerns because numbers are so low.

I turned my treasured bucktail over in my fingers, then put it away, stowed the wallet back in the basement. I doubt I’ll fish again, not while I’m forced to contemplate the possibility of the Salmon Coast without wild salmon.

Runs “of Concern”

  • Early Stuart returns down 90 percent over three generations
  • Bowron returns down 93 percent from 2004 brood year
  • Cultus 2004 brood year lowest on record
  • Sakinaw only 11 smolts counted in spring 2005
  • Chemainus less than 50 Chinook returned in 2007
  • Lower Thompson extremely poor coho returns in 2005 to 2007
  • Georgia Strait coho marine survival for 2006 lowest on record
  • Taku chum stock depressed since 1991

BC’s Most Endangered Rivers in 2007

Endangered riverCauses
Flathead RiverProposed coal mine, coalbed methane development, roads, pipelines
Capilano RiverThreatened steelhead stocks, need for modifications to poorly designed dam
Coldwater RiverExcessive water extraction, low summer flows
Fraser RiverUrbanization, sewage, pollution, lower summer flows, gravel extraction, agricultural impacts, reduced protection for urban stream tributaries
Coquitlam RiverExcessive sedimentation, gravel extraction, urbanization
Taku RiverProposed mine, acid mine drainage
Cheakamus RiverToxic spills, significant fish kills, low flows
Okanagan RiverChannelization, water extraction, urban encroachment, riparian habitat loss, the building of dams and weirs
Iskut/Stikine RiverHeadwater development, cultural impacts, mining proposals
Salmon RiverDeclining fish stocks, agricultural pollution, flash floods, falling water tables, urbanization
Skeena RiverMixed stock fishery, aquaculture, coalbed methane

—Source: Outdoor Recreation Council of British Columbia

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