Death in the Salish Sea – Demise of the Wild Chinook

‘Coast-wide, we’ve fished our wild chinook near to nothing. Now we’re fighting for the scraps.

Ten years ago I wrote the book, Who Killed the Grand Banks? But before going to press I insisted the publisher add one chapter: ‘Are wild Pacific salmon doomed to go the way of the Grand Banks cod?’

Yes, it turns out, when it comes to chinook, our magnificent, iconic salmon. One decade on, here in the Salish Sea, wild chinook have been fished to near extinction. This, despite the efforts of federal scientists, a series of independent reports — each more shrill in tone — and the introduction of the federal government’s Wild Salmon Policy in 2005.

But that policy — heralded by politicians and touted by a cadre of public relations specialists — has failed utterly. According to recent research by Simon Fraser University, chinook populations have plummeted in the 10 years since the policy came into effect.

Many have studied the Pacific salmon fishery over the years. Report after report warn: chinook stocks are collapsing. Such reports also result in an oh-so predictable blame game. ‘User groups’ from the commercial and sport fish industries point fingers squarely at the other. ‘Not me.’

Others cite a litany of reasons for the collapse: habitat destruction, climate change, rising water temperatures in salt and freshwater, seals, hatcheries, aquaculture, and more.

What’s really going on? Overfishing, that’s what.

For more then a century, we fished wild chinook stocks long and hard. Little wonder then, by the early 1990s, came calamitous collapse. Stocks fell to such low levels (less than one-tenth of historic levels, where they remain). Today, what’s left of the sport fishery relies largely almost exclusively on artificial fish, pumped out of hatcheries.

As documented in my Grand Banks book: there were many contributing factors in the extinction of the East Coast cod, yes, but the primary cause was overfishing as a resource was turned into an industry: the relentless industrial vacuuming of the ocean floor by Canada’s own inshore trawl fleet — torqued and subsidized at every turn by governments in St. John’s and Ottawa.

By 1992, came an unprecedented ecological disaster to rival any other — the Amazon rain forest notwithstanding — in modern history.

This shameful made-in-Canada plunder was part human greed, part stupidity, part wilful ignorance. Today, the Grand Banks cod collapse is rightly studied as an ecological fail at universities and research centres around the world.

Now, here in the Salish Sea, another ecological collapse. Canada’s disgrace, Pacific version.

This fall, in a series of essays, Walhachin Press contributors Stephen Hume and Misty MacDuffee will explore aspects of the collapse. Another essay will look at potential solutions including turning the Salish Sea into a no-fish zone for chinook salmon.

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