BC VIEWS: Usual suspects in salmon crisis

October 27, 2009

By Tom Fletcher - BC Local News, Published: October 27, 2009

VICTORIA – Listening to politicians in recent years, one forms the impression that there is a single existential threat to B.C.’s iconic Pacific salmon.

That of course is sea lice, a natural parasite on salmon that has allegedly exploded into a plague due to the presence of offshore salmon farms. And the greatest sea louse of all, the conventional wisdom goes, is Premier Gordon Campbell, who’s selling off the fragile coastal habitat to his multinational pals from Norway who run these farms around the world.

This could be called the Rafe Mair school of thought, and it’s bunk. Evidence of that at least is becoming as abundant as the poor overfished sockeye are scarce. Yet debate here at the B.C. legislature has focused almost entirely on fish farms, and the theoretical need to get them out of the open ocean.

In response to this controversy, in 2004 Campbell appointed the Pacific Salmon Forum, with a mandate to find ways of protecting B.C.’s wild salmon.

It was the proverbial “blue ribbon panel” of independent experts, chaired by former federal environment and fisheries minister John Fraser. Members include Teresa Ryan, a marine biologist from the Tsimshian Nation in northwestern B.C., Christina Burridge of the BC Seafood Alliance, former Campbell River mayor Jim Lornie, veteran fishing guide Jeremy Maynard, Harry Nyce, director of fish and wildlife programs for the Nisga’a Lisims government, and John Woodward of Woodward’s stores fame, who has devoted his later life to the Pacific Salmon Foundation and river recovery projects.

After exhaustive study of the available research, the forum’s final report was issued early this year, and largely ignored. One of its key findings was that sea lice can be managed to protect wild stocks, as the B.C. government has also demonstrated for some time.

The forum’s experts concluded that efforts should focus on conditions in the ocean and in B.C.’s vast, battered network of rivers, lakes and creeks that sustain this annual miracle. Land farms, not fish farms, along with subdivisions, roads, logging sites and industry have made sewers out of too many streams.

Here’s just one example of why the sea lice theory is so lousy. Through most of its existence it has focused almost entirely on pink salmon. Apparently the pinks didn’t get the memo that said they are doomed, because they have come back this year in numbers seldom if ever seen.

It’s sockeye that have gone missing, no surprise given how relentlessly humans prey on them. Still, millions of them went to sea from B.C. and for reasons not yet understood, most did not return.

Here’s one possible clue. Again this summer, Humboldt squid were washing up on Tofino’s beaches. These man-sized monsters chase fish into shallow water and sometimes beach themselves in the process. They’re native to California waters, but in recent years they have hunted in uncounted packs up here. This suggests a profound shift in ocean currents and conditions where the sockeye are disappearing.

Do these squid have a taste for sockeye as we do? Hardly. They eat mackerel down south, and apparently any fish they can snare in their long tentacles will do.

The Rafe Mair school has now moved on to a new bogeyman, run-of-river power projects. This is also bunk.

So what is the answer? As the Pacific Salmon Forum has shown, there is no single, easy answer so craved by grandstanding politicians and environmentalists.

The experience of Alaska and Washington states is different than B.C., and I’ll look at that in a subsequent column.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com.