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Chum on the run
General · 8th November 2007
Barry Saxifrage
"Keep your knees up so you don't whack 'em as you fly over the boulders." So I was ready for that…but not for the cold. As our two Cortes families swam out into the swift and rolling river, the cold was all I could think of. The first glimpse of the salmon, however, was a bigger shock. Schools of big chums torpedoed every which way as we floated by like maple leaves. Wow. My view of salmon was transformed by seeing them in their element. The beast on the cutting board gives no hint of their power and grace under the water.

The conditions that day were perfect. Not for us necessarily, but for them. Salmon need clear, cold, flowing rivers year-round.

But a converging mess of climate changes has the future of BC salmon in doubt. We are at a crossroads. Our actions halting climate change in the next few years will decide many things, including whether we have salmon in our rivers and oceans.

Voices of Concern

In reading dozens of articles, websites and scientific studies, I was amazed at the wide range of people deeply concerned about salmon and climate changes. Here are a few:

The Pacific Fisheries Resource Conservation Council, a government advisory body, reports some southern BC streams “may simply become uninhabitable to salmon. Every one of their life phases is directly impacted by climate change. The freshwater flows are changing in rivers. The rain and snowfall patterns are changing. Salmon face warmer rivers, warming oceans, more acidic oceans, different predators and food shortages. The whole nine yards of problems.” They call for dramatic action now before stocks collapse.

Scientific studies say that the entire Adams River watershed – one of B.C.'s most important sockeye streams, with runs of millions of salmon in some years – could lose its salmon if temperatures increase just a few degrees.

A 2007 NOAA study documents a “large negative impact of climate change on freshwater salmon habitat…most pronounced in relatively pristine, high-elevation streams and in river basins that receive snow.”

The US National Wildlife Federation predicts dramatic loss of crucial NW tidal areas due to rising sea levels. Chinook, chum, coho and pink salmon are all at risk.

Dr. Richard Feely at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Lab says all North Pacific fisheries are at risk from ocean acidification. “Increasing CO2 concentrations in the ocean has a very deleterious impact on many forms of marine organisms”.

United Fishermen of Alaska President Joe Childers agrees: "it's going to be very, very significant impact on fisheries of the North Pacific. It could potentially eliminate a lot of them."

Dave Barrett of the DFO's commercial salmon advisory board says if global warming continues to increase its long-term impacts, the commercial sector will need to seriously consider its future. "The industry is on its knees."

Avid fisher, big-wall climber, and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard: “I’ve been going up to BC for 30 or 40 years, and all the little pocket glaciers on the coast range have receded. They have withered down to two-thirds the size of what they were. I think BC’s going to lose all the salmon streams as a result…Now the summer water temperatures are getting up into the 70s, which is death for salmon. So probably the only places in the world that’ll have salmon are Alaska and Russia. I’m not talking 50 years from now; I’m talking right now…I see it. Oh, my God, it’s unbelievable. When I go salmon fishing I look at myself as witnessing the end of the species.”

The Climate Threats

Climate change is hurting every part of BC salmon’s life-cycle. From eggs to spawners, our salmon fight each day to survive our increasing CO2 emissions. Fewer are making it.

1: Born into Changing Rivers

Historically, big snowpacks in the mountains store winter precipitation, melting slowly through the summer. But global warming is causing more winter rain and less snow. Winter flooding is increasing. The spring rise is happening 10 to 30 days sooner. The Fraser River rise passes Hope 11 days earlier. Flooding is scouring eggs from spawning beds. Warmer water is making eggs hatch quicker, producing smaller juvenile salmon that are more likely to be eaten by predators. Warmer water is favoring fish that eat young salmon.

2: Childhood in Damaged Nurseries

Estuaries are critical habitat for juvenile salmon. Youngsters spend time there as they acclimate to ocean water. Sea level rise is threatening these nurseries. Even under moderate climate change forecasts, the Fraser delta could lose up to 33% of its tidal marshes. The Skagit Delta would lose a half-million Chinook just to sea level rise. A recent study of many NW estuaries predicts a 65% loss of estuarine beach and a 44% loss of tidal flats in the next several decades.

3: Disappearing Food

Many small “feed” fish that adult salmon eat also require these ever shrinking estuaries.

The world’s oceans are warming faster than the air. Warmer waters have less food for salmon. This is changing the food chain off the west coast. Salmon stocks get pushed northward while exotic southern species such as mackerel enter our waters. Some climate models show El Ninos becoming routine, causing even greater warming.

The Fraser River Panel studying the 2007 sockeye collapse says “it's increasingly likely that very warm ocean temperatures in 2005 resulted in a reduced food supply and stunted the growth of juvenile sockeye as they went out to sea, making the returning four-year-olds susceptible to predators. ”

Off of Oregon a huge, low-oxygen, dead zone has developed over the last 6 years. No fish live in these waters. Scientists say fundamental changes to the upwelling of low-oxygen water off the West Coast may be occurring…caused by global warming influenced wind changes.

But potentially worst of all is a newly understood threat: ocean acidification. Oceans have soaked up a third of all our CO2 emissions, becoming 30% more acidic. Scientists are discovering that higher acidity prevents calcium shell formation. If CO2 emissions continue unabated, surface water could be corrosive to shells within decades in the North Pacific. Creatures facing an increasingly “corrosive and even deadly environment” include some planktons, pteropod snails, crab, clams, oysters, shellfish, starfish and coral reefs. More than 60% of a salmon’s diet can be pteropod snails. Scientists are calling ocean acidification “very alarming”, “the most profound environmental change”, “a doomsday scenario” and “potentially worse than global warming” because it is “shaking the biological underpinnings of civilization.” And once our CO2 enters the ocean and becomes carbonic acid, it won’t de-acidify within a “timeframe relevant to humanity”. The oceans will need at least 10,000 years to remove it. The only way to prevent a permanently crippled ocean food chain is to dramatically cut our CO2 emissions in time.

4: Spawning in Changing Rivers

During the crucial spawning months, less winter snow often means too little summer flow. Snowpack has dropped 10% - 25% throughout the NW. Unless we dramatically cut climate emissions soon, in 30 years snowpack is projected to decline up to 20% more in the Interior and up to 80% on the coast. Summers are getting warmer and drier. Intense droughts are predicted to become more frequent.

Returning adult salmon face smaller and slower flows, and higher water temperatures. Some rivers are becoming mere trickles in summer. River conditions are increasingly “lethal to salmon”. Warmer water causes salmon to burn energy faster, exposes them to bacterial infections and makes upstream passage harder. Fish sometimes become so exhausted they die, or are unable to spawn when they reach the spawning grounds.

Studies abound. The average summer temperature of the Fraser is 1.1 degrees higher than four decades ago. The warming of the Yukon River has caused significant increases in diseases infecting salmon. In the Cowichan River on Vancouver Island, low flow periods are beginning earlier in spring and extending later into fall. Last year the flow got so low that for the first time ever known, Chinook literally could not get upstream. In a last ditch effort to save the run, people carried salmon in trucks to the spawning beds.

Bad as it is, melting glaciers have buffered the full impact of the snowfall changes by providing some extra summer flow. Studies show up to half of late summer flows can result from glacial melt. But our glaciers are disappearing fast. Examples: the Columbia River basin lost 20% of its glacial area in the last 15 years, with some glaciers shrinking 60%. Our fast retreating southern BC glaciers are hitting 7,000 year lows as marked by emerging ancient stumps. In the North Cascades, 53 glaciers have disappeared. If more glaciers disappear, as they will unless we dramatically cut emissions soon, our summer rivers will turn increasingly deadly to salmon.

What to do?
Our already embattled salmon are getting hammered by our CO2 emissions. And so are we. Our hydropower, drinking water, forests, irrigation, food supply, industries and international peace are threatened too.

The problem is our ever-increasing CO2 emissions. The only solution is to dramatically cut them, soon.

If we want a hopeful, stable and salmon-filled future for us and our kids, we need to roll up our sleeves and get to work creating a less destructive lifestyle. The easy, half-measures we have tried so far in Canada and USA have failed miserably to stop the growth of emissions. We must choose better mileage vehicles; more train and bus travel; more biking; vacations closer to home; more local food; local products. We must insist our politicians force down emissions.

If we create this better future, salmon will still fill our rivers, our fishing lines, our tables and our dreams.
Adams River sockeye run. One of our biggest.
Adams River sockeye run. One of our biggest.
BC Government charts and information
BC Government charts and information
From "The Acid Threat" in November 2007 National Geographic Magazine. Shell photos show rapid dissolving of pteropod snail shell in acidic waters equal to expected 2100 levels
From "The Acid Threat" in November 2007 National Geographic Magazine. Shell photos show rapid dissolving of pteropod snail shell in acidic waters equal to expected 2100 levels
Worth hanging onto.
Worth hanging onto.