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.”

See full article here . . . . . . . .

Last Dance: Spawning Chum Salmon, Vedder River

by Petr Herman Adventures

“This video stars a pair of Chum salmon going about their courtship dance. They use their tails to clear silt from the nest they have dug for their eggs, called a Redd. They are not actually spawning in the video, but they are making all the preparations, getting to know each other and chasing off other fish. The male has the green tags that are used by the hatchery for fish tracking. Chum like large gravel and sites where some ground water seeps through the gravel to keep their eggs oxygenated.”

Squamish River Estuary Skwelwil’em/Howe Sound

by Bob Turner January 27, 2021

The Squamish River estuary was once large and thriving with life, this video shows that changes that have taken place over the past decades without thought in the long lasting impacts to the natural world. Thank YOU Bob Turner for your remarkable work to bring this to our attention and to see the life that is worth standing up for. #WaterIsLife

The Squamish River Estuary

“For nearly 30 years, the central estuary at the mouth of the Squamish River sat cut off from its fresh water source buried under thousands of yards of river dredge material.

With funding and agreements in place, the Squamish River Watershed Society commenced work with BC Rail, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and countless community volunteers to restore the Squamish River Estuary.” – Squamish River Watershed Society

​​Read more here on plans by the Squamish River Watershed Society to rehabilitate this area. See page here . . . . . . . .

Salmon returning to North Van creek in ‘shocking’ numbers (VIDEO)

Coho and chum salmon returns up 300 per cent almost immediately.

January 18, 2021   by North Shore News

Mosquito Creek Salmon webNorth Shore Streamkeepers president Keegan Casidy wades into Mosquito Creek where salmon are returning in record numbers thanks to a habitat restoration project led by local volunteers.Paul McGrath, North Shore News

After all but disappearing from Mosquito Creek, salmon populations are returning in record numbers thanks to a habitat improvement project led by the North Shore Streamkeepers.

Keegan Casidy, the group’s president, grew up fishing in North Vancouver. Life took him to the Cariboo for a time but when he returned to the North Shore in 2016, he saw his beloved creek almost devoid of fish.

The last time a pink salmon had been spotted there was the following year.

“I used to run down with a fishing rod, prior to cellphones and things like that, and have some fond memories of very large fish in the creek,” he said. “I very quickly found out that the salmon population had declined to a point of almost extirpation.”

As the North Shore developed, the nature of the stream changed with more storm water washing away the woody debris and boulders where salmonids seek shelter, and compressing the gravel where they lay their eggs.

Casidy joined the North Shore Streamkeepers and started picking the brain of a local restoration biologist with experience in creek rehabilitation projects. The Squamish Nation was already ahead of him, having commissioned a study assessing the creek from First Street to the estuary. The Nation provided the report and backed the project. Casidy then raised the $250,000 required to transform the creek’s bank where it runs through the Squamish Nation’s community of Eslhá7an.

Some of the biggest funders chipped in between $10,000 and $25,000 including the Pacific Salmon Foundation, Seaspan, Neptune Terminals, CN Rail, Patagonia and the City of North Vancouver. It took more than three years and thousands of volunteer hours to get the project shovel ready.

Casidy said he was brought to tears when Squamish Nation representatives conducted a blessing, with drummers and singers who came to let the creek know work was going to begin. It took 11 days in September for heavy equipment operators to carefully place new boulders and 60 mature conifers with their root balls still attached.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and the Streamkeepers began transplanting eggs from a hatchery to the creek in 2019. When the mature survivors return to spawn later this year, they will find the creek looking much better than they left it. But Casidy said he was astounded to see new fish moving in almost immediately.

“We already had coho salmon utilizing the structures that we had built,” he said. “That was pretty much the earliest we’ve ever seen them and they were in very good shape.”

Going back to 1995, the Streamkeepers had never counted more than six chum and eight coho salmon on Mosquito Creek. When Casidy did a detailed count on Remembrance Day, he found 21 chum and at 25 coho.

“So in both cases, you’ve got an over-300 per cent increase in population,” he said. “We were absolutely shocked to see how many coho and chum had returned.”

They’ve also since spotted the first steelhead trout on the creek in 21 years.

Casidy said it’s most likely the newcomers had strayed from their home creeks and rivers after they could detect the new trees and boulders on Mosquito Creek.

“They go, ‘Whoa, that smells really good. Let’s go check it out.’ And ultimately they decide, yes, this is suitable spawning habitat,” he said.

DFO is now planning to put in 20,000 pink and 20,000 chum eggs on alternating years and Casidy brims with optimism future returns will be in the hundreds of fish per year, over and above the wild salmon population.

“Looking forward, we can only expect larger returns,” he said.

Other sponsors and partners on the project included Concert Properties, British Pacific Properties, Cove Continuity Advisors, Vancity, Northwest Hydraulic Consultants, BCIT, RDM Enterprises, Sqomish Forestry and Headwater Management.

Video here. . . . . . . .

Raincoast Study: Chinook salmon exhibit long-term rearing and early marine growth in the Fraser River, B.C., a large urban estuary

A new study has used salmon ear bones (otoliths) and genetic fingerprinting to confirm the importance of the Fraser estuary for juvenile Chinook salmon.

Published on 2021 · 01 · 20 by Raincoast Conservation

A tiny juvenile Chinook salmon in a viewfinder in the Lower Fraser River.

Photo by Michael O. Snyder.

A new paper published by a team of researchers, including Raincoast scientists, and led by Lia Chalifour, finds additional evidence of the importance of the Fraser estuary as critical habitat for Chinook salmon. 

The paper, “Chinook salmon exhibit long-term rearing and early marine growth in the Fraser River, B.C., a large urban estuary“, was published in Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences(open access).

Using tiny salmon ear bones, or otoliths, the researchers were able to demonstrate that Chinook salmon from Harrison River rely on the Fraser estuary for one to two months while they feed and grow. These findings underscore the critical nature of this habitat for the persistence and recovery of Chinook salmon.

Harrison River Chinook used to be the most productive Chinook salmon population in the Fraser, but has been declining for generations and is now considered threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). 

Knowing now that Chinook salmon rely on estuarine habitat as juveniles, we must work to protect and restore this estuary.

“The Fraser estuary is an expansive, silty ecosystem, which makes it difficult to study fish movements. Using modern techniques, we were able to confirm that this threatened population of Chinook salmon rely heavily on the estuary during their emigration to the ocean, which is a critical period that influences their future survival.”

Lia Chalifour, lead author

Read the full paper

“This study shows that young Harrison River Chinook rely heavily on the estuary, and in particular the fresh and brackish marsh on the Fraser delta, before they enter the ocean. Since the vast majority of these habitats have already been lost or degraded, this stage may be a bottleneck that reduces their productivity.”

Dave Scott, co-author

Citation

Chalifour, L., D. C. Scott, M. MacDuffee, S. Stark, J. F. Dower, T. D. Beacham, T. G. Martin, and J. K. Baum. 2020. Chinook salmon exhibit long-term rearing and early marine growth in the Fraser River, B.C., a large urban estuary. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Science DOI: 10.1139/cjfas-2020-0247

Abstract

Estuaries represent a transition zone for salmon migrating from freshwater to marine waters, yet their contribution to juvenile growth is poorly quantified. Here, we use genetic stock identification and otolith analyses to quantify estuarine habitat use by Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) – the Pacific salmon species considered most reliant on this habitat – in Canada’s most productive salmon river, the Fraser. Two years of sampling revealed subyearling migrant (“ocean-type”) Chinook from the Harrison River to be the estuary’s dominant salmon population throughout the emigration period. These Chinook salmon were caught predominantly in the estuary’s brackish marshes but shifted to more saline habitats as they grew. Otolith analyses indicated that these Chinook salmon have wide-ranging entry timing (from February to May), and longer estuarine residency (weeks to months, mean 41.8 days) than estimated by prior studies, but similar daily growth rates (mean 0.57 mm +/- 0.13 SD) across entry dates and residency periods, implying sufficient foraging opportunities throughout the emigration period and habitats. Together, these results suggest that estuarine habitat is more important for early marine growth of subyearling migrant Chinook salmon than previously recognized.

Select figures

Figure 1

Figure one is a map of the Lower Fraser Harrison testing sites and estuaries.
Fig. 1. Sampling locations within the marsh (M1-M5), sand flats (SF1-SF6), and eelgrass beds (E1-E6) of the Fraser River estuary, British Columbia, Canada. All sites were sampled each year, with the exception of E6, which was replaced by eelgrass site 7 (E7) in 2017. Gold lines in top inset show the maximum upstream extent of saltwater intrusion during freshet (highest river flows). The dark orange line shows the maximum upstream extent of saltwater intrusion during base river flows (i.e. earliest point of estuarine entry) at ~30 km from the delta front. The red line marks the furthest upstream point of observable tides ~90 km from the delta front. Map data from the B.C. Data Catalogue’s (https://catalogue.data.gov.bc.ca/dataset) Freshwater Atlas (freshwater) and Canadian Hydrographic Service (coastline), Natural Earth (British Columbia polygon), and Norman Maher (Salish Sea boundary). Habitat polygons adapted from the Habitat Inventory of the Lower Fraser River Estuary, 2002/3 (Fraser River Estuary Management Program). Saltwater intrusion points and tidal extent based on Dashtgard et al. (2012).

Figure 2

Figure two images of the tiny ear bones and markers.
Fig. 2. Diagram of otolith measurements taken. Each measurement was taken three times and the mean result was used for subsequent analyses. A: Otolith width, B: Otolith width at estuarine entry, C: Otolith radius at estuarine entry, D: Total estuarine growth, E: Mean daily estuarine growth (measurement divided by count of daily increments), F: Early estuarine daily growth, G: Late estuarine daily growth, H: Freshwater daily growth. *: Estuarine entry inflection as identified by LA-ICPMS, DP: Dorso-posterior quadrant of the sagittal otolith.

Figure 4

Figure 4 from Lia Chalifour's paper showing estuary frequencies and locations of Chinook salmon.
Fig. 4. Juvenile Harrison Chinook salmon estuarine entry timing and residency prior to capture, based on otolith-derived estimates. Panel A shows the range of entry timing and Panel B shows minimum residency. Panels C and D show the relationship between residency and entry timing. Entry day explained 54.7 % of the variation in residency period (P = 6.1×10-16 401 ; C). Julian day 100 corresponds to April 9, 2016 (leap year).

Affiliations

  1. Department of Biology, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC Canada
  2. Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Sidney, BC Canada
  3. Tsawwassen Shuttles Incorporated, Tsawwassen, BC Canada
  4. School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC Canada
  5. Pacific Biological Station, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Nanaimo, BC Canada
  6. The Conservation Decisions Lab, Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences, University of BC, Vancouver, BC Canada

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