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Slammin’ Salmon

B.C.’s most famous fish is on its way to becoming a legend

Grandpa may not have had to walk 30 miles to school, uphill both ways, no matter what he says – but when it comes to gauging the damage that the B.C.’s Pacific salmon fisheries have sustained in the past 50 years, grandpas are one of the best sources we have.

By all reports, the situation was good. Great even. Some rivers and streams had already dried up, but for the most part the salmon industry, aboriginal populations and sport fishermen had few complaints. People used to joke that B.C.’s rivers were half water and half protein.

Those were the days.

Now it appears that B.C.’s salmon stocks are dwindling, even on the verge of collapse. It’s impossible to guess how many salmon runs have been destroyed over the years, or how far pacific salmon populations will be able bounce back with a little coaxing and a lot more control.

According to decade by decade escapement for Rennell Sound, a system of 17 streams, the decline is significant. Starting in 1950, fisheries officers would walk the length of the stream every year, counting the number of fish that had escaped capture to spawn. Because the size of a fish run usually fluctuates on a four or five year cycle, the total number of fish counted is added up at the end of a decade.

Between the decades of 1950 to 59 and 1990 to 99, escape numbers declined 68 per cent for Coho Salmon, 67 per cent for Pink Salmon, and a whopping 92 per cent for Chum.

And that’s just in one watershed.

According the Sierra Club of B.C., sockeye salmon used to move up the Fraser River in waves over 160 million fish strong. The number of sockeye making the trip these days has dwindled to just seven million.

In the last decade alone, sockeye numbers in the Fraser dwindled by a whole 33 per cent. Chinook numbers dropped by 56 per cent in the same timeframe.

The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) estimated in 1998 that the number of jobs associated with salmon fisheries on the West Coast would drop by 60 per cent, from a season high of 26,000 in 1996 to an all-time low of 10,500 in 2000.

They were almost exactly right – about 16,000 people lost their jobs in that two-year period, and there’s good reason to believe that few of them can ever expect to get them back.

The salmon runs in 1998 and 1999 were the worst the coast had seen since 1900. The Fraser, the Nass, the Skeena and the Thompson River runs didn’t even show up. In May of 2000, the DFO closed the Fraser sockever fishery altogether, with only 3 million fish expected to make the return trip that season – they had originally estimated a limited fishery and three million fish, but were forced to re-evaluate the situation when the fish didn’t show. Rivers up and down the coast also reported lower than normal runs.

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