It was a tough year for B.C.’s iconic salmon.
But there’s reason to hope 2020 will be better.
Fraser River salmon, already struggling, took a major hit in June after a rock slide blocked their critical migration route just before they were about to head upstream.
The Big Bar slide, north of Lillooet, sparked an intensive effort to get the fish to their spawning grounds. Using helicopters and truck transport, the salmon were lifted from the water and moved farther upstream.
If there was urgency in the effort, it was because biologists had seen this before.
In 1914, railway construction along the Fraser generated a rock slide that made passage through Hell’s Gate north of Hope impossible. The result was dramatic. In 1913 the salmon run was estimated at 2.4 million. Four years later, when the cycle returned, the number had plummeted to fewer than 600,000.
Efforts over the next few years, including construction of fishways, helped mitigate the damage, but some species never recovered.
Scientists see the same potential at Big Bar. Last month the federal government earmarked up to $30 million for private-sector contractors to clear the debris, citing the possible “extinction” of some species if action wasn’t taken quickly.
“Without immediate environmental remediation,” a government department wrote in December, “many salmon stocks native to the upper Fraser River may become extinct.”
That urgency was echoed by the Pacific Salmon Foundation. Calling the situation a “national emergency,” the foundation told politicians, “Failure to fully restore salmon passage will have serious biological, economic and socio-cultural consequences that will have repercussions for years to come.”
The economic impact of the slide is already being felt. The threat to the salmon prompted the total closure of recreational fishing in the non-tidal portions of the Fraser, affecting the lucrative tourist trade in several B.C. communities.
The impact on indigenous communities is even greater. Following the 1913 slide, whole fisheries for some First Nations were lost. The fear is that the Big Bar slide could have the same effect.
Salmon held a special place in this part of the world long before Europeans colonized it. Not only was it a critical food source, salmon held a special spiritual significance because of its timely reappearance each year – “a gift.”
That reverence remains. It’s something I can’t fully appreciate, but I do understand the significance of a healthy salmon stock to the whole intricate biological balance of B.C.’s coast and its waterways.
Salmon feed more than people. They sustain the orcas in the ocean, gulls and raptors inland, the bears on the river’s edge, and, when their life is done, their bodies nourish the land.
I was reminded of that as I ran along one of my local trails the other day. At my feet I found a salmon head and later a tail – nitrogen-rich gifts for the trees housing the bald eagles perched above me.
Work is being done in communities across B.C. to help salmon have a better future. This year federal and provincial governments committed more than $150 million for research and habitat restoration over the next five years.
This commitment will no doubt be cheered by the 35,000 volunteers who give up their Saturdays each year to wade into muck, plant trees and clear debris so young salmon have a fighting chance.
In Hope, for example, an abandoned gravel pit that’s been a tomb for young salmon will now have access to the Fraser and ultimately the Pacific.
Along my running trail, new spawning beds were created. Days after the narrow construction window closed I watched in fascination: The ripple that I thought were waves around a rock were in fact spawning salmon, stirring up gravel and literally laying the foundation for a new generation.
What a gift.
Greg Knill is a columnist and former Black Press editor. Email him at email@example.com.