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The federal government is touting lofty goals at the United Nations biodiversity conference underway in Montreal, but Ottawa is failing to save iconic salmon and steelhead trout populations on the edge of extinction, B.C. conservation groups say.

At the opening ceremony on Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau noted the summit, known as COP15, is a milestone moment for nature in the face of the global biodiversity crisis.

Positioning itself as a global leader, Canada has promised to protect 30 per cent of its lands and waters by 2030 and halt and reverse biodiversity loss by the same deadline. Trudeau is pushing other countries to make similar commitments.

“Until we agree that we should stop species from going extinct…and that it matters that forests, grasslands, jungles endure,” he said, “we cannot guarantee a future for our kids.”

Trudeau spoke of Canada’s immense coastline along with B.C.’s ancient forests and endangered killer whales during his speech, but not salmon — the keystone species in decline that all the others depend on.

Ottawa has “abandoned” endangered salmon and steelhead trout despite its biodiversity promises, a trio of environmental groups allege.

The federal government has failed to protect vulnerable populations of the fish under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA), tackle unsustainable fishing practices and establish recovery plans with concrete targets, said Jesse Zeman, executive director of the B.C. Wildlife Federation.

“Many salmon populations in B.C. are headed for extinction and the federal government is essentially managing them to zero,” said Zeman in a joint statement issued along with Watershed Watch Salmon Society and the B.C. Federation of Fly Fishers.

The federal government’s wild salmon policy and recent Fisheries Act revisions haven’t resulted in positive outcomes for imperilled stocks, the groups added.

Ottawa has “abandoned” endangered salmon and steelhead trout despite its biodiversity promises, a coalition of B.C. environmental groups allege. #COP15 #biodiversity

Under SARA, It’s illegal to kill, harm or capture species listed as endangered or threatened. Identifying critical habitat and devising a recovery strategy, complete with timelines and outcomes, is also required. Before deciding whether to protect a species, the federal government receives scientific recommendations from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).

To date, 41 salmon stocks — 34 from the Pacific coast alone — have been assessed as endangered or threatened by the committee, according to data on the federal species at risk registry.

Only one Atlantic salmon population, from the Bay of Fundy on the East Coast, has been listed for protection under SARA.

“SARA protections are miles from perfect … but unless the federal government is legally obligated to protect salmon, they won’t,” Zeman said.

Zeman cited Thompson and Chilcotin river steelhead populations as a particularly egregious example of the government’s negligence. The salmon-like trout, which hatch and grow in fresh water before migrating to the ocean, were designated by B.C. as an extreme conservation concern.

COSEWIC launched an emergency assessment of the Chilcotin and Thompson river steelhead in 2018 when fish numbers reached historic lows. Reassessed again in 2020, the fish were still deemed to be endangered and at dire risk, said Aaron Hill, executive director of Watershed Watch Salmon Society.

The number of spawning steelhead in the Chilcotin in the spring was estimated to be 19 fish while the Thompson River population was estimated at 104 — the lowest number since recording began in 1978.

Fishing protections 'not enough'

Instead of listing steelhead under SARA, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) developed a protection plan with the B.C. government using Fisheries Act regulatory measures.

It’s estimated that on average, 18 per cent of the endangered steelhead returning to the Fraser River from the ocean are caught and potentially injured or killed as bycatch in nets from fisheries targeting a mix of fish and other salmon.

The department implemented short-term rolling closures of salmon fisheries where and when steelhead are expected as they return to spawn. DFO also states the long-term closures of a number of salmon fisheries in 2021 to protect endangered stocks will likely benefit the steelhead.

The closures help protect endangered salmon and steelhead, but it’s not enough, Hill said.

Too many fisheries remain open, such as the gill net sector, which catch a mix of fish, putting endangered stocks at risk, Hill said. A shift to selective fisheries with techniques targeting one fish and minimizing bycatch is necessary.

“A SARA listing would force DFO and various fishing sectors to switch to those selective fishing methods because they haven't done it voluntarily.”

The federal government's rationale for not listing endangered steelhead or salmon is largely based on the possible economic harm to fisheries that would come from taking measures, Hill said.

The federal government estimated the economic impacts of listing steelhead could be up to $24 million annually for commercial and recreational fishers, Indigenous groups and the seafood and recreational services industries.

The DFO and fishing sectors’ fears that listing salmon and switching to selective methods will eliminate the industry are exaggerated, said Eric Taylor, fish expert and zoology professor at University of B.C.

Many measures can increase the survival of salmon under SARA without shutting down fisheries entirely, such as using fish traps and weirs employed by Indigenous fishers for millennia, said Taylor, also a former COSEWIC chair.

DFO reluctant to list commercial fish under SARA

In October, environment and sustainable development commissioner Jerry DeMarco took the federal government, and DFO in particular, to task over shortcomings in protecting biodiversity. SARA’s objective is to prevent further extinctions by protecting and recovering species at risk, regardless of their economic value, DeMarco said.

DFO is biased against listing commercially valuable species under SARA, a report based on a partial audit of aquatic species showed.

Additionally, there’s not enough staff for enforcement and insufficient data on many species at risk, and the department causes significant delays to the process when species are listed, taking an average of 3.6 years to do so.

It is time for the prime minister to demonstrate his commitment to at-risk species by protecting endangered Pacific salmon under the laws that exist for that very reason, Hill said.

Selective fisheries on their own won’t be enough to save endangered salmon, Zeman said.

The federal and provincial governments need to use every strategy available, including managing stream levels better, protecting and restoring habitat, changing forestry practices and curbing predation of salmon by seals and seal lions, he said.

“The government needs to pull all those levers fast and at the same time,” Zeman said.

A paradigm shift is needed at DFO to prioritize protection of threatened stocks over fishing them, Taylor said.

Ensuring healthy, self-sustaining stocks before employing a sustainable fishing program would provide benefits in the long term, he said.
“Instead, we’re always trying to react to crises,” he added.

Taylor isn’t convinced the government will act with urgency to protect the future of wild salmon, despite declarations about protecting biodiversity at COP15.

“What’s really going to drive change is the public,” he said. “If they care enough about salmon and get angry at politicians for not doing anything.”

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
December 9, 2022, 02:40 am

This article was updated to correct the spelling of the last name of Jesse Zeman, of the BC Wildlife Federation

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10 or 15 years ago I had recently moved from Prince George BC to Manitoba. I read an article about the warming waters of all the rivers in Central and Northern BC. And it warned Salmon were particularly sensitive to water temperatures and were likely doomed with climate change and warmer rivers like the Fraser, Thompson, Nechacko and their tributaries. But have seen .title info or studies si ce then , while seeing more concern about salmon. So have the river temperatures increased ? And has this affected salmon spawning?