Brian Riddell

Health of salmon not determined by catch counts

CEO of Pacific Salmon Foundation speaks to gathering of Qualicum Beach Streamkeepers

B.C. fishermen may have to console themselves with limited harvest of salmon in the coming years, but the long-term prospects for wild Pacific salmon are not as dire as some critics claim, the head of the Pacific Salmon Foundation told members of the Qualicum Beach Streamkeepers during their annual general meeting Saturday at St. Stephen’s United Church.

“If you’re interested in the future of salmon, it’s better than indicated by what people talk about in the media,” said Brian Riddell, CEO and president of the PSF and a former staffer with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. “In the past, people have been fixated on catch as the measure of abundance and health of salmon. But the health of salmon is not determined by the catch. It’s determined by the amount of fish that come back and spawn after the catch.”

Streamkeepers president David Jones opened the meeting by highlighting projects worked on over the past year and is looking forward to work planned for the coming year. Qualicum Beach Streamkeepers is made up of about 100 volunteers who work in crews to renew and maintain fish habitat, measure and monitor water and salmon in local watersheds, and communicate and advocate for healthy fish populations.

In his keynote address, Riddell admitted the total return of fish has remained low since bottoming out after its high point in the early 1990s. But conservation efforts — lowering the allowable take of fish — and salmonid enhancement work by groups like the Streamkeepers has maintained healthy spawning returns.

“In the mid-90s we lost a lot of production,” Riddell said. “To keep the fish in the spawning grounds and maintain the diversity of salmon out into the landscape, we’ve deliberately reduced the rate of fishing. The commercial fishery has paid the biggest price on this.”

Riddle presented a mixed review of the state of wild salmon in B.C.’s waters. While noting fishing caps have allowed continued healthy returns of salmon to the spawning grounds, Riddell painted a grim picture of impacts from global climate change and said lower catch rates will likely need to continue for the forseeable future.

Using data presented in slides, Riddell cited shrinking glaciers and ice fields, forest losses to the mountain pine beetle, population growth, sea-level rise, ocean acidification and oxygen depletion and water temperature increase as creating a perfect storm of stresses on wild fish populations.

“The elephant in the room is climate change,” he said. “It is here, and we’re already dealing with this thing. Salmon will evolve. The problem is, they can evolve only so rapidly, and we’re really going to have to be careful not to add stresses to them as they go along.

“But, by definition, that adaptation is going to reduce the productivity of the salmon, which means you’re going to have to reduce the fishing pressures and all of your other stressors. There isn’t any question that in the short term we should expect to take less.”

Riddell, who is also a commissioner for Canada to the Pacific Salmon Treaty, said the PSF is lobbying the federal Liberal government for more of a commitment in resources and a “higher profile” for Pacific salmon.

He said he has also convinced his fellow commissioners to draft a white paper on climate change and its impacts to coastal waters.

“The whole agreement that we developed since 1985 is going to change,” he said. “It’s getting increasingly hard to make an accurate statement based on the past. The future is not going to be like the past, and we’re seeing that already, right now.”

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