Decades of cuts to salmon monitoring leave B.C. scientists uncertain of fish populations

The Narwhal: by Matt Simmons,

February 18, 2021

For 40 years, Doug Stewart coordinated his movements with spawning salmon on B.C.’s north coast, climbing up creeks to count the fish as they returned from the ocean.

His job as a creekwalker — a contract salmon monitoring gig for Fisheries and Oceans Canada — took him places no one would think fish could reach, he told The Narwhal. One November, after wading through a frozen lake with his canoe in tow, he followed a creek up through a frozen meadow and counted coho in slow-flowing pools covered with thin ice.

“It was something that’ll stick in my head forever. Those are the kinds of things that keep drawing you back.”

When Stewart reluctantly retired in 2016, no one took over for him, leaving an area of about 17,000 square kilometres to the last remaining creekwalker in the region. “Even when there was two of us, we still weren’t doing the job properly,” he said.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada has been hiring creekwalkers to count salmon returning to natal streams along the Pacific coast since 1940. These creekwalkers provide essential information about populations, which is used to inform fisheries management decisions, including how many salmon can be caught for commercial or recreational purposes.

However, decades of budget cuts have greatly reduced the number of creekwalkers and the number of streams being monitored, while wild salmon populations have been declining. Critics say the data collected by creekwalkers is needed to make good fisheries management decisions.

“From a conservation perspective, we need this information to assess the health of populations,” Michael Price, a salmon researcher at Simon Fraser University, told The Narwhal in an interview. “We can’t accurately make fisheries decisions when we don’t know how many fish are coming back.”

PacificWild, a conservation organization focused on the Great Bear Rainforest, recently launched a campaign to call attention to the declining number of creekwalkers on the north and central coast and what that means for salmon.

In 1949, there were 150 creekwalkers monitoring the north coast; by the late 1970s there were 40 and now there are just two, according to research by the organization. PacificWild has also found that only 215 of 2,500 spawning streams on the central and north coast are being counted. That’s about a 70 per cent decrease since the 1980s, when around 1,500 of those streams were monitored.

PacificWild does not have data on how many creekwalkers are monitoring streams on the south coast nor how many streams there are being monitored.

According to research by Price and others, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has continually cut funding for monitoring since the 1980s. When Fisheries and Oceans Canada announced a wild salmon policy in 2005, which prioritized the conservation of Pacific salmon and acknowledged a need to preserve biological diversity, conservation scientists expected the department would increase monitoring efforts.

“That was Objective 1: to identify populations that we need to protect in perpetuity,” Price said. Yet, the decline continued.

In the absence of data collected by creekwalkers, Fisheries and Oceans Canada estimates B.C. salmon populations by counting the fish at just a few sites in larger systems, doing aerial surveys and tagging fish at downstream locations and creating a population model based on how many show up farther inland.

But according to Price, the accuracy of those estimates can be off by as much as 50 per cent and it’s impossible to know what’s happening to individual populations without monitoring streams.

Price added that without “boots on the ground,” the data lacks critical context.

“If we’re just flying over and looking at the spawning reach of a system, and not literally walking up the entire system, you don’t know if there are blockages in the system, or disease events, or pre-spawn mortality because the water temperatures were high, or big predation years.”

Price said creekwalkers carry irreplaceable knowledge of the spawning sites they visit year after year. This informs a deeper understanding of anomalies and fluctuations in salmon returns, which in turn informs fisheries management.

For example, Stewart said there was an unexpected large early return of pink salmon to the glacial-fed freshwater systems in the region last year. Fisheries and Oceans Canada decided to open the commercial fisheries, but because the decision was not informed by creekwalkers’ knowledge, it resulted in an error that left many creeks without enough fish to sustain the populations.

“Without the patrolmen out there, the department wasn’t able to realize that this wasn’t going to be a continuous thing through all the systems,” he said. “They actually overfished because they didn’t realize that the secondary [returns], what we call the fall pinks, weren’t coming. You’ve got to have people in the field to see so that you can actually make good management decisions.”

Fisheries and Oceans Canada declined an interview request and was unable to provide any information.

Price gave credit to Fisheries and Oceans Canada for erring on the side of caution by dramatically limiting the commercial and sport fisheries over the past few years, but added that increasing data could only have a positive impact.

“If we had more information, I would like to believe that we would make more informed decisions,” he said. “But right now, we are flying blind.”

When Stewart retired, the Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation started counting spawning salmon in around 15 of the 150 streams in his former monitoring area. They receive a small amount of funding from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and share their data with the department.

Kitasoo/Xai’xais fisheries director Larry Greba said they’re trying to cover a handful of streams that are representative of other streams.

“In the absence of that information, you have no idea what’s going on with stocks,” he said. “Unfortunately, in some cases they seem to be going — I hate to use the word — extinct. We’ve got a number of systems in the area that have just gone to next to nothing.”

But Greba said he’d like to see Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan allocate more resources for Indigenous monitoring programs and said her recent mandate letter from the prime minister, which calls for the development of a Pacific salmon strategy, offers a glimmer of hope.

Other coastal nations, including the Heiltsuk and Gitga’at, have similarly started monitoring streams in the absence of Fisheries and Oceans Canada programs. Fraser Los, communications coordinator for the Coastal Stewardship Network, told The Narwhal in an email that efforts are underway to standardize the methods of data collection and make sure they’re compatible with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Los said Coastal First Nations are working on digitizing data collection as part of a regional monitoring system.

Price agreed that coordinating monitoring methods is key and added that increasing our knowledge of how many fish are out there doesn’t have to be a huge investment.

“It’s not rocket science. It just takes those adventurous individuals that would like to tramp up streams and count fish.”

The federal and provincial governments have earmarked more than $140 million for salmon conservation programs through the British Columbia Salmon Restoration and Innovation Fund, including some monitoring programs.

B.C. Parliamentary Secretary for Fisheries and Aquaculture Fin Donnelly said the province is committed to working with the federal government and First Nations.

“I think there’s a recognition that we have to do things differently,” he said. “We have to be innovative, we have to work together and collaborate, and we need action now.”

He said the province has started to fund Indigenous guardian programs to help address the problem, citing a $7.3 million investment in the Broughton archipelago, where Minister Jordan recently decided to phase out open-net pen salmon farms by 2022. He said the funding includes support for monitoring programs.

Biologist Alexandra Morton suggested creating a new senior position within Fisheries and Oceans Canada to coordinate this collaboration.

“We need a director of wild salmon.”

While many populations are on the brink of extinction, Morton said salmon can survive given the chance. “The ocean and the rivers can still make fish. People should not give up.”

Stewart saw what was at stake last summer while anchored with his family in a “gin-clear” river where he used to see around 60,000 chum and 60,000 pink salmon returning every year. He estimated only about 500 chum returned last year.

“We’re watching this sow grizzly with two cubs, and there’s no pinks available yet so she’s hunting chums. And I mean she’s stalking them.”

He chuckled and said she was pretty good at it, but added there were probably another dozen grizzlies in the area all trying to catch the fish.

“All of a sudden you don’t have enough chum in that system to supply the bears and to supply the future stock of chums,” he said. “The bears are getting what they can get and you’re hoping like hell [the fish] at least got a few eggs into the gravel before they became bear protein.”

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