GLOBE AND MAIL
Sockeye salmon recommended for listing under Species At Risk Act
PUBLISHED DECEMBER 4, 2017
For centuries, sockeye salmon have raced up British Columbia's Fraser River to spawn in the millions, completing an astonishing life cycle that spans four years and thousands of kilometres.
Now, scientists have determined that many populations of Fraser River sockeye are in such alarming decline that they should be listed under Canada's Species at Risk Act.
The recommendation, announced Monday by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, an independent scientific body that advises the federal government, is the most significant acknowledgement to date of the jeopardy facing the iconic red-bodied fish that was once the mainstay of British Columbia's salmon industry.
"It's a signal of a larger issue," said Eric Taylor, committee chair and fish ecologist at the University of British Columbia. "The Fraser River is having trouble supporting these fish."
A number of committee members said that, without more decisive government action, long-term prospects for sockeye and other salmon species on the Fraser are grim. Last year saw the lowest number of sockeye salmon returning to the Fraser since records began in 1893.
"The projections aren't great if we don't change the way we do business around the river basin," Dr. Taylor said.
Researchers say a number of factors could be contributing to sockeye decline in the Fraser, including the combined impact of commercial, recreational and traditional fishing, as well as pollution and rising water temperature due to climate change. Warmer water increases stress on the cold-water fish during an exhausting upstream marathon and promotes parasites.
A more controversial question is the degree to which fish farming on the Fraser may be transmitting diseases that impact wild fish.
Under the Species at Risk Act, the committee's recommendation must now be taken up for consideration by the federal government. But Ottawa has a track record of failing to list commercially important fish, despite warnings from scientists that failing to do so could lead to population collapses. A recent report by World Wildlife Fund-Canada notes that only 12 of 62 species of Canadian fish deemed at risk of extinction have been listed by the government since 2003.
Emily Giles, a WWF representative who attended the sockeye deliberations last week as an observer, said that the state of the sockeye in the Fraser has broad implications for wildlife across the region that depend directly or indirectly on the sockeye as a keystone species.
"They die after they spawn and their bodies go back into the ecosystem and provide important nutrients for the rest of the freshwater habitat," she said.
The current state of the Fraser River sockeye was documented in the most complex set of assessments that the committee has had considered at one time in its 40-year history. Work on the assessments began four years ago when biologists first had to establish how many distinct populations of sockeye use the Fraser River and its several tributaries, some of which reach as far inland as the Alberta border.
In total, researchers identified 24 distinct sockeye populations on the Fraser, each connected to a different tributary system. This was an important determination, because sockeye are so well adapted to their specific spawning environment that if the species disappeared from one tributary it's unlikely that sockeye from another tributary could be successfully reintroduced there.
Last week, during a marathon session in Ottawa, scientists voted that eight of the 24 populations of Fraser River sockeye should be listed as endangered – representing the highest level of risk that the population could someday be lost. The committee determined that two other populations should be listed as threatened and five more designated "of special concern." The committee also voted that the remaining nine populations of sockeye still occur in large enough numbers on the Fraser that they do not warrant listing.
The diverse assessment sets up the potential for a regulatory headache. As sockeye re-enter the Fraser after years out in the open Pacific, they travel in mixed schools. Because it's not possible to distinguish members of one population from another on sight, a federal listing for some populations would likely require measures to curtail fishing of all Fraser sockeye.
"It's going to be a challenge to implement measures to try to protect these stocks and actually rebuild them," said Alan Sinclair, co-chair of the marine fishes subcommittee, who presented the sockeye data last week.
The committee, which meets twice each year, is set to systematically consider other British Columbia salmon populations in the future, including sockeye in other watersheds as well as coho and chinook salmon.
During a reception last week recognizing the committee's 40 years of service last week, Catherine McKenna, federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change, said she would adopt targeted timelines for dealing with the backlog of recommendations for listing. The targets include 24 months for terrestrial species and 36 months for some aquatic species including fish.
Environmental groups point out that the 2002 Species at Risk Act was actually written with the intention that the committee's recommendations be taken up within nine months but that successive governments have found ways to delay listing.
Other recommendations announced by the committee on Monday include delisting the peregrine falcon, which was declared endangered decades ago but which has rebounded since the pesticide DDT was banned. The committee also assessed three populations of grey whales that migrate through Canadian coastal waters. Two of the three, including one that feeds near Vancouver Island, were assessed as endangered.