Sockeye salmon returns plunge in B.C., official calls 2019 ‘extremely challenging’

Click to play video: 'Ottawa confirms Pacific salmon stock decline'
Ottawa confirms Pacific salmon stock decline
WATCH: Federal fisheries officials confirm there have been significant declines in the number of Pacific salmon stocks, prompting a First Nations chief to call for a state of emergency to be declared. Linda Aylesworth reports – Aug 22, 2019

Federal fisheries experts are painting a devastating picture of the challenges facing Pacific salmon and point to climate change as the main culprit.

Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said that 2019 has been an especially difficult year in what has been a decades-long decline in stocks, after his department released a new report on the state of wild Pacific salmon.

“There is no question that climate change is having a significant impact on our salmon,” he said Thursday at a news conference in Vancouver.

“Not only do these declines have direct impacts on our ecosystems and the health of our environment, but they have serious impacts on the health of our economy.”

WATCH: (Aug. 20) SFU CSI work is bad news for Skeena salmon run

Click to play video: 'SFU CSI work is bad news for Skeena salmon run'
SFU CSI work is bad news for Skeena salmon run

In one of the most dramatic shifts, the federal department has adjusted the number of returning Fraser River sockeye expected this year to slightly more than 600,000, down from an earlier projection of nearly five million.

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Twelve out of 13 Fraser River chinook populations have been recommended for protection under the Species at Risk Act, while coho returns in Alaska and Skeena River sockeye returns also prompted significant fisheries closures.

Wilkinson also announced $2.7 million for five projects under the British Columbia Salmon Restoration and Innovation Fund.

“Part of any realistic plan to protect and ultimately restore key salmon stocks must include a comprehensive and aggressive plan to reduce carbon emissions,” he said.

Sue Grant, one of the report’s authors, said some of the declines are residual effects of larger climate change events like “The Blob,” an enormous mass of warm water caused by a heat wave in the North Pacific.

The Blob had significant impacts on the food web and prompted large fatty zooplankton, the primary food of Pacific salmon, to migrate north and be replaced by a much smaller, less nutritious species, she said.

“Everything we’re seeing in salmon and ecosystem trends is embedded within this larger context,” she said, adding that Canada is warming at a rate double the global average and the rate increases at northern latitudes.

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“The planet is warming and the most recent five years have been the warmest on the planet’s record.”

The report says that air and water temperatures in B.C. and Yukon are increasing, while changing precipitation patterns are altering freshwater habitats. These effects are compounded by human activity that alters the landscape.

Species like pink salmon that spend less time in freshwater are showing fewer declines, suggesting they are less vulnerable to climate change.

The report comes as officials continue to work around the clock to clear a barrier along the Fraser River blocking the migration route of millions of salmon on their way to spawning grounds.

WATCH: (Aug. 6) More than 2 million salmon at risk due to Big Bar landslide

Click to play video: 'More than 2 million salmon at risk due to Big Bar landslide'
More than 2 million salmon at risk due to Big Bar landslide

“This is undoubtedly a crisis situation,” Wilkinson said of the landslide, adding that 100 staff are working to clear a path for the fish.

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About 270,000 salmon have been recorded in the river below the barrier, while only 26,000 have been moved upstream, primarily via helicopter, he said.

The response effort is facing criticism.

Esk’etemc Chief Fred Robbins, whose community is upstream of the slide, said he is concerned that the fish that make it past the slide are too exhausted to continue on to spawning grounds.

“The impact of the rock slide is devastating. We had a community meeting where my whole community showed up, probably close to 250 people jammed into our gym and we talked about the impact,” he said.

“We need to stand up for our salmon.”

Robbins interrupted Wilkinson’s news conference alongside Chief Judy Wilson of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs to call on Ottawa and Victoria to declare a state of emergency on the Fraser River.

Wilson also questioned how the federal government could say it’s committed to fighting climate change at the same time that it approved and bought the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, which comes with a sevenfold increase in tanker traffic.

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Wilkinson said decisions about the slide response are made by members of a group that includes First Nations as well as provincial and federal officials.

Don Willimont, a director with the Spruce City Wildlife Association, said fisheries officials should have acted boldly when the Big Bar slide was first discovered.

Willimont said his groups have identified just 16 chinook in five Fraser River tributaries above the slide.

Just under 5,000 fish were counted in those tributaries in 2014 and those numbers were considered dire at that time, he said.

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