Scientists from five Pacific Rim countries are in the Gulf of Alaska aboard a Russian research vessel, seeking answers about what the changing ocean environment is doing to salmon populations. Using DNA sampling, they expect to return with estimates of how many fish there are in each of the hundreds of different salmon stocks in the region – a research first that would affect everything from how whale populations are protected to the completion of Canada’s resource projects.
While they’ve been at the sea, the National Energy Board (NEB) announced that the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion should be built in the national interest, even though it will likely cause significant adverse environmental effects on endangered wildlife, including the southern resident killer whales.
In the Feb. 22 announcement, the NEB acknowledged that the factor with the largest effect on the population of the whales – one that could probably lead to their extinction – is a reduction of Chinook salmon that the whales rely on as their primary source of food.
The decision, and the difficult trade-off the NEB acknowledged, underlines the urgency of the problem the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) is facing and one of the issues the scientists on the research vessel Professor Kaganovskiy are trying to address: You cannot manage what you cannot count.
With key salmon stocks declining and without even the basic data to determine by how much, let alone why, the department is being forced to address the problem. At stake, say critics, scientists and the minister responsible for DFO, is the country’s ability to safeguard an endangered whale population, its international standing as a steward of the marine environment, and its ability to bring to completion resource projects that impact the country’s coasts.
Last year, more than one million fish “disappeared” from British Columbia’s critical Adams River sockeye run. Harvest levels were set by DFO based on the department’s projection that six million sockeye would come back, but only 4.3 million fish were accounted for. And that was sockeye, the species that DFO tracks best.
“Every year we forecast, and then we are surprised by what happens,” said Richard Beamish, the chief scientist and organizer of the voyage to the Gulf of Alaska on the Professor Kaganovskiy. A retired DFO director, Dr. Beamish specializes in studying the effects of climate on fish populations.
“This is a voyage of discovery, and what we find will provide an understanding of the basic mechanisms that regulate Chinook. It is essential we understand what is going on, to be the most effective stewards in the future,” he said.
Scientists estimate that 50 years ago, the survival rate for the Chinook returning to Strait of Georgia – important prey for the southern resident killer whale – was about 5 per cent. Today, only 1 per cent of the juvenile salmon that swim out to sea make their way back as adults. That significant decrease has sparked fierce competition between the whales and other marine life, as well as commercial and sports fishers.
“We need to know what’s causing that mortality,” Dr. Beamish said.
The scientists come from Canada, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States – the five North Pacific countries that have a stake in salmon as a resource. The project is privately financed, but Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson earned a spot on the podium that sent the Professor Kaganovskiy expedition off, because Ottawa contributed some funding to the project.
This is the kind of research Canada needs to build DFO’s capacity to accurately measure what is happening to the province’s salmon, Mr. Wilkinson said. The failure on the Adams River run is just one example of why Canada must do better.
Mr. Wilkinson, the first federal fisheries minister from the West Coast in almost 20 years, was appointed to the portfolio last July, inheriting a department that has earned a black eye for its record on managing B.C.'s wild salmon stocks. His goal is to restore the science capacity of his department and to put sustainability first.
“We don’t have a good a handle on why the returns are not great these days,” said Mr. Wilkinson said in an interview prior to the NEB decision. “The investments in the scientific capacity of the department to be able to do the work it needs to do to make good management decisions, is something we are committed to doing.”
The NEB report noted that there are just 74 whales left that are southern resident killer whales, and polluted waters and acoustic disturbances from increasing vessel traffic are taking a toll. The NEB also found that the number of Chinook salmon is estimated to have declined from 25 per cent to 40 per cent since the early 1980s, and there is no recovery on the horizon. The abundance of Fraser Chinook salmon continued to drop in 2018, and the outlook for 2019 is for continued unfavourable conditions and low productivity for these Chinook stocks.
The federal government acknowledges that the whales face an imminent threat to their survival and recovery. Ottawa’s efforts to protect the whales – a key part of the government’s campaign to buy social licence for the Trans Mountain project on the West Coast – has included investments in water treatment projects and efforts to reduce marine traffic noise.
Last summer, DFO ordered a one-third reduction of the Chinook harvest in key foraging areas for the southern resident killer whales but it is not yet clear if those targets were met. If the forecasts were higher than actual returns, it means too many salmon were harvested.
Mr. Wilkinson is still waiting for new data to determine if the forecasts were correct.
“We’ll digest whether or not the measures were effective, as we think about what needs to be done for the coming year in the context of a stock that is clearly under pressure,” he said.
The Liberal government says the problems at DFO can be traced back to cuts under the former Conservative government. Federal spending on DFO has been rising steadily under the Liberals, from $2.1-billion in 2015 when the Liberals took power, to $2.6-billion in the last federal budget. That’s allowed the department to hire 291 new science staff.
Inadequacies of salmon management on the West Coast have drawn the attention of the international Marine Stewardship Council, the world’s largest seafood sustainability certification scheme. The agency conditionally certified B.C.’s salmon fishery two years ago, and recently conducted its first annual audit. Canada was found to be wanting in several critical areas, with nine of the council’s 22 conditions not met.
In its audit, the agency referred to a series of internal DFO e-mails, which had been obtained by The Globe and Mail in October.
The e-mails highlight the need for additional funds to support salmon stock assessments so that fisheries can be safely protected and stocks conserved, as required in policy, the auditors found.
If DFO doesn’t address these issues in time for the second audit due some time in the fall of 2019, the certification could be suspended or withdrawn.
Lana Popham is the B.C. minister responsible for fisheries, and she is concerned the province would suffer a blow if it loses its status as a producer of sustainable salmon products.
“Any independent certification body that’s labelling things to be sustainable or not sustainable, its important for us because there is an opportunity to build, or to destroy, public trust on how things are being managed," she said.
“There is a lot of work to be done," she said.