In British Columbia, downward trends in wild salmon populations have been evident for much of the past decade. However, since 2019, they have taken a dramatic turn for the worse in many watersheds.

Salmon are under threat from the cumulative effects of climate change, human development, resource extraction and fisheries exploitation. Effective recovery will require many things, including large-scale, cross-jurisdictional collaboration across all levels of government – federal, provincial, municipal and First Nations – along with scientific advice to ensure accountability and transparent, informed good governance.

There are many problems that need to be addressed.

The monitoring that allows us to assess salmon population status and to inform data-driven recovery strategies has been underfunded, sporadic and inconsistent. The management responsibility and monitoring effort is spread across governments and departments, while decision-making is largely left with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), which handles too many competing priorities – including conservation, fisheries and aquaculture. DFO also retains ministerial discretion over final management decisions, regardless of the best available information, as the recent example of the interior Fraser steelhead demonstrates, when Ottawa thwarted efforts to help the endangered species.

Where does this leave wild salmon, the lifeblood of British Columbia’s ecosystems, cultures and economies?

The current landscape

Assessment and recovery approaches for Pacific salmon are disparate and have failed to effectively turn the tide against continued extirpation (localized extinction) in Canada.

Wild salmon populations are assessed by various organizations – the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada; directly by DFO via integrated status assessments, through the annual integrated fisheries management plan; and by various technical committees via the U.S.-Canada Pacific Salmon Treaty.

These assessments look at populations grouped in different ways, as well as slightly different data time series and sets of assumptions. They also often have huge time lags from data synthesis to status assessment (e.g., eight years for southern B.C. Chinook). However, driven by different levels of governance responsibility and legislation, these disparate approaches often result in similar status assessments and all show continued declines.

In most cases, population status (where assessed) has continued to decline while tangible recovery actions have lagged. From a conservation perspective, part of the problem may lie in the reluctance of the federal or provincial government to list salmon populations under the Species at Risk Act, given that this stronger legislation could (or should) curtail related extractive activities such as fishing, mining, forestry or other areas where their cumulative impact threatens healthy salmon populations.

Fisheries Act revisions under Bill C-68 have the potential to help but may also be doomed to fail because the legislation still provides ministerial discretion to avoid making tough choices, for instance to limit fisheries or other industrial activities.

Canadian colonial governance history shows that when politicians have an option to avoid uncomfortable decisions related to resource-based economies, they decide in favour of industry and the political benefits of short-term economic gains. The fallacy of short-term thinking when applied to natural resource governance is ever-present and keeps us on a path toward an ever-more ecologically depauperate Canada.

Salmon on their way to spawning grounds, Victoria, B.C., in 1929. Library & Archives Canada.

Confounded approaches to recovery

If and when fisheries population status is understood, there are currently a variety of methods for assessing opportunities for recovery. Here again, DFO has an established approach (recovery potential assessments followed by species-specific recovery plans). We also have newer approaches in development (e.g., priority threat management, risk assessment method for salmon or RAMS), and in some cases Indigenous-led recovery plans (e.g., Atnarko sockeye) and local recovery planning efforts (e.g., Cultus Lake sockeye).

Yet, these processes all operate at different levels, typically in isolation, with variable objectives and methodologies, and often without consistent capacity, funding support or deadlines. Other limitations include a lack of quantitative data to inform strategic decision-making, a lack of funds to support implementation beyond the planning phase, or the intentional or unintentional exclusion of certain sectors, which can lead to a lack of support for implementation and ultimately a failure to lead to better outcomes.

The bottom line is that wild salmon respect no political or municipal boundaries, and any effective recovery of these iconic species will require large-scale, cross-jurisdictional collaboration across governments.

Ecosystem-based management principles

While the processes required under Bill C-68 represent a significant opportunity to align these efforts, no transformative outcomes are likely to be achieved because they continue to allow ministerial discretion and let DFO focus on fisheries management alone rather than taking an integrated ecosystem-based management approach driven by strong collaborative governance structures.

Developing ecosystem-based recovery plans has the potential to simplify the recovery planning process, which should improve its cost-effectiveness, reduce duplication of recovery efforts and improve the efficiency and impact of implementation. In addition, ecosystem-based recovery planning offers a larger opportunity to bring together a broad range of interested parties, stakeholders and governance levels to develop recovery plans.

Going forward, rebuilding efforts should be regional, founded on ecosystem-based management principles, and must include co-governance at all levels – federal, provincial, municipal and First Nations. This approach can serve to address the commonalities among the salmon species more efficiently and can also have a single focus instead of many separate processes all acting at cross-purposes.

Rebuilding requirements must have teeth

Successful salmon management is a complex multi-stakeholder process. To be effective, ecosystem-based recovery planning should be conducted collaboratively among all four levels of government, along with current and engaged scientific advice to ensure accountability and transparent, informed good governance. In particular, implementing effective rebuilding plans for fish and fish habitat – whether under Bill C-68 or not – will require government-government co-operation and collaboration.

Integrity of the DFO’s science advisory process in question

Fisheries framework obscures the long-term picture of declining populations

Such an approach requires a collaborative steering committee with representation from all governments led by either a well-known NGO or public figure to ensure credibility and accountability, as well as a science-focused technical advisory committee. This approach can be informed by examples of effective rebuilding strategies (e.g., Okanagan sockeye, Cowichan salmon). A big and important step forward building on these efforts will be to strengthen the role of Indigenous Peoples in fisheries management, conservation and recovery planning, while removing ministerial discretion on the management decisions.

The urgent situation we are facing

In many areas across B.C., salmon are at risk of blinking out. The implications are staggering and hard to comprehend – for First Nations, for ecosystems, for fisheries and for the average British Columbian. Effective recovery requires collaborative efforts that account for ongoing changes in freshwater and ocean habitats across the salmon life cycle.

The root causes of decline are complex. Band-Aid approaches, finger-pointing, or more disjointed planning processes will only ensure that we continue on our downward trajectory. The solutions require working together across government and management agencies, restoring functioning river systems damaged by years of industrial logging, applying the precautionary principle to fisheries openings, and prioritizing First Nations leadership and their constitutionally protected rights to access salmon.

As we wrestle with our Western colonial mindset, which tends to prioritize single-issue problems and solutions, we must move toward an integrated approach that recognizes the interconnected nature of species, and acknowledges the finite nature of the salmon resource while celebrating the diverse values that wild salmon offer to B.C. and Canada.

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Eric Hertz
Eric Hertz is a salmon ecologist with more than a decade of experience working on the conservation and management of Pacific salmon. Twitter @eric_hertz
Charlotte Whitney
Charlotte Whitney is a fisheries ecologist working in the context of Indigenous governance and fisheries reconciliation with more than a decade working in marine planning and fisheries management. Twitter @charwhitney1
Richard Bailey
Richard Bailey is a semi-retired salmon stock assessment biologist who provides technical advice to First Nation and NGO fisheries organizations in support of conservation and recovery planning.

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