Rishi Maharaj: Canadian government incompetence has killed an industry
The decline of Pacific salmon appears to be yet another facet of an alarming problem: the Canadian government is unable to recognize and act on urgent policy problems.
By: Rishi Maharaj
On June 29, the federal government announced the closure of roughly 60 per cent of British Columbia’s commercial salmon fisheries for the season, capping the decades-long decline of what was once one of the most productive industries in the province.
In 1913, nearly 40 million sockeye salmon returned to the Fraser River. Between 1980 and 2014, it averaged 9.6 million. By 2020, that figure was less than 300,000. Although 2020 may have been an exceptionally poor year, similar long-term declines have been seen in other salmon species and in other runs across the coast.
The remarkable decline of Pacific salmon is just one of many ecological tragedies that we now face — the disappearance of southern resident killer whales, the extirpation of caribou from much of southern Canada, the logging of our last remaining ancient forests. But it is somewhat unique in that salmon are more than a cultural and ecological value. At its peak, salmon harvesting and processing supported tens of thousands of jobs and numerous coastal communities. Furthermore, salmon and its historic abundance formed a cornerstone of coastal Indigenous culture for thousands of years before the arrival of European settlers.
We constantly hear how protecting the environment and growing the economy are not mutually exclusive, and sustaining a commercial salmon fishery ought to be a prime example of that. Instead, our failure to protect such a valuable resource is an indictment of Canadian political culture and our unwillingness to act decisively in the face of evidence.
It is telling that the decline of Pacific salmon immediately reminds us of a seemingly parallel case — the collapse of the Atlantic cod fishery. In 1992, the Canadian government placed a moratorium on the cod fishery after centuries as the backbone of the Atlantic Canadian economy. Stocks had fallen to one per cent of historic levels, largely the result of overfishing. Nearly 30 years later, cod have not recovered, and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) remains a swear word in many circles.
The story of salmon, however, is somewhat more complex than overfishing. Over the years, many expert commissions and independent scientists have turned their attention to the issue of declining salmon stocks. In 2009, the Harper government appointed retired B.C. Supreme Court justice Bruce Cohen to head a public inquiry into the stunning decline of the Fraser River sockeye, the most iconic of the many salmon populations that have collapsed. When the Cohen Commission delivered its report in 2012, it found no “smoking gun,” no single factor that had led to the decimation of Fraser sockeye in the way that overfishing led to the decline of cod.
Rather, Cohen’s landmark, nearly 1,200-page report found a litany of contributing factors at every stage of sockeye’s lifecycle. Salmon are largely anadromous, meaning that they migrate as juveniles from freshwater to the ocean, eventually returning as adults to the streams and lakes they were born in to spawn the next generation. The Cohen Commission found impacts from forestry, mining, hydroelectric development, climate change and development everywhere from the headwaters where salmon spawn to the ocean where they mature to the rivers they must navigate to reach their spawning grounds once again.
Rather than one specific driver, it is the accumulation of impacts allowed by a regulatory regime that is not designed to consider the cumulative degradation of habitat that has driven salmon to the brink.
We have logged the headwaters, discharged mine and pulp mill effluent into the rivers, built dams that block the flow of sediment into the estuaries and pumped our atmosphere full of carbon that is increasing ocean, river and lake temperatures. We now pretend to be surprised when the salmon that rely on all of the things we are destroying can no longer survive. We spent $25 million on a public inquiry to explore the mystery of why salmon stocks are collapsing when it is the most obvious thing in the world that the survival of any species is premised on the existence of the natural environment that it has evolved to rely on.
For me, the most damaging part of the Cohen Commission report is that DFO and Ottawa more broadly have been asleep at the wheel for decades. Despite the existence of a 1986 Habitat Policy that articulated the active conservation of existing productive salmon habitat, restoration of damaged habitat and development of new habitat as guiding goals, Cohen found not only that DFO had failed to achieve those goals but that it had never actually committed to do so.
Cohen excoriated DFO for failing to consider cumulative impacts to habitat rather than considering proposed projects one at a time. He found that despite extensive testimony on the effect of forestry activities on fish habitat, DFO had completely disengaged from reviewing proposed forestry activities that could harm that habitat. A particularly infuriating section of the final report finds DFO and Environment Canada pointing at each other for who is responsible for monitoring contaminants in the environment, with each department conceding that it thinks it is the other one’s job.
Bruce Cohen delivered his final report in 2012. Last month, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans issued a report on the long-term health of Pacific salmon. It found many of the same issues that Cohen pointed out nearly a decade earlier still persist, namely: warming of the ocean, habitat loss and degradation, open-net salmon farming, overfishing and a woefully inadequate response from DFO to all of the above. The Committee concluded: “Since the release of the [Wild Salmon Policy] over 15 years ago, DFO has had little success in stabilizing, let alone restoring at-risk wild Pacific salmon populations. In the committee’s opinion, the status quo in salmon management cannot restore these depleted populations in the challenging context of climate change affecting both ocean conditions and the freshwater environment.”
The decline of Pacific salmon appears to be yet another facet of an alarming problem: the Canadian government is unable to recognize and act on urgent policy problems, instead punting them to an endless cycle of outrage-motivated independent reviews whose recommendations are never acted on. This is not a partisan matter; both Liberal and Conservative governments have abjectly failed on this issue in recent decades.
The troubling thing about Ottawa’s long-term indifference to the decline of Pacific salmon is that this is not a niche issue. Conservation issues are often framed as activists vs. the economy; we know what it would take to save southern mountain caribou or spotted owls, for instance, but we aren’t willing to disrupt economically valuable activity to save some animals. This is tragic, but not entirely surprising.
But the salmon fishery is itself an important part of the economy — or at least it was. In the end, no segment of society other than the political class will truly benefit from the collapse of salmon stocks: valuable commercial and sport fishing industries that could have generated sustainable jobs and tax revenues indefinitely will be lost and the only beneficiaries will be politicians who got re-elected promising action that never materialized.
It is possible that the current closure of salmon fisheries is the first step in a major turnaround in approach to salmon conservation. Only time will tell if the current Fisheries minister’s words are more reliable than her predecessors. In the meantime, if you have the opportunity to enjoy recreational salmon fishing on the coast of B.C. this year, enjoy it while you can. Your grandkids probably won’t.
Rishi Maharaj is an electrical engineer. He lives in Powell River, B.C.
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