Monday, April 27, 2009

The 2008 salmon catch: Equal to a herd of a million buffalo, moving over the plains

This is not the kind of story you’d expect to hear about Pacific salmon. It’s just not supposed to be happening, but it really did happen, last autumn, in the parched bunchgrass and mesquite country along a five-kilometre stretch of the Okanagan River, not an hour’s drive north of the Canada-U.S. border. This is the kind of country where you might encounter rare tiger salamanders or spadefoot toads in the sagebrush and prickly pear, but it’s the last place you’d expect to find sockeye salmon. And yet last year, close to 130,000 sockeye were there, churning up the gravel with their tails, frantically building nests for their eggs and their milt and, finally, writhing in their post-spawn death throes.

Most of the spawning occurred in the last wild stretch of the river, almost all of it within the Osoyoos Indian Reserve, just above the town of Oliver. It was the highest return of sockeye to the Okanagan River in at least six decades. But it wasn’t the only astonishing salmon story last year.

In the North Pacific, the all-species, all-nation commercial catch of salmon was the largest of any year on record. It was bigger than even the gluttonous excesses of the early-20th-century industrial fisheries. And most of the 2008 catch came from relatively healthy stocks. In all, Korean, Japanese, Russian, Canadian and American fishermen pulled just over a million metric tonnes of salmon from the coastal waters of North America and Asia. Imagine a herd of one million buffaloes thundering across the plains and you’ll have an idea of just how much biomass that is.

There are many reasons why these aren’t the sorts of things you’d expect to hear about salmon nowadays. After all, roughly half the world’s surveyed fish species are threatened, while one-third of the world’s fisheries have collapsed and most of the major ones that remain are operating well above their sustainable limits. Hundreds of Pacific salmon runs are extinct, and hundreds more are threatened. As a result, Pacific salmon are now gone from at least half their former North American range, and ever fewer spawners are carrying much of the genetic diversity that remains.

All over the world, species of all kinds are retreating into their shrinking ecological redoubts and vanishing at a rate without parallel since the great Cretaceous die-off 65 million years ago. The planet is warming, and even in B.C.’s cool, cedar-shrouded coastal rivers, water temperatures are now routinely so lethal entire salmon runs come home from the sea only to suffocate and die before spawning. . .

The truth is, B.C.’s vast and splendid diversity of wild salmon is withering, and has been for some decades now. The province’s sockeye are by far the most robust species, but even so, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature placed them on its “red list” of threatened species last October. And because sockeye have been the staple of the province’s commercial salmon fishery, the industry, as you might imagine, is now on death’s door.

Salmon anglers, meanwhile, are facing unprecedented closures, bag-limit reductions and no-catch rules. Last year on the Fraser River—long known as the greatest salmon river in the world—federal fisheries officials closed almost all the sockeye fisheries in the river’s approach areas, and left the Fraser Basin’s aboriginal communities, which make up half the Indian bands in B.C., to ration the remnants among themselves. Even with constitutionally protected fishing rights, these communities are increasingly going without the salmon that have sustained them from time immemorial.

The farther south you go, the worse it gets. Declines in salmon abundance have been most dramatic in the recreational fishermen’s preferred quarry of chinook and coho. Cross the border into Washington and Oregon, and you’d think it’s doomsday. The litany for all this sorrow and loss is well known: overfishing, habitat destruction, hydroelectric dams, dysfunctional government agencies and, lately, global climate change.

But as the story of the Okanagan salmon reveals, there is hope. . .

That's just the opening bits of a rather expansive interrogation of the state of salmon in the North Pacific - and changing currents and controversies in conservationist thinking and in science - that I've just written for Outdoor Canada magazine. You'll have to pick it up at the newsstands if you want to read it, or (better idea) subscribe. The beautiful photo up above is actually the work of my old colleague Nick Didlick, from the website A River Never Sleeps, which he produces with another old pal of mine, Mark Hume.

It's an especially good issue of Outdoor Canada, with several interesting articles, and I see that in Top Gear tips, Ken Bailey 's recommendation for best pump-action shotgun of the year is the Remington Model 87 Nitro-mag 12-gauge.

It was the very thing I had in mind today, being of humane disposition (if you take my meaning), when I was reading a certain addled columnist in the Tyee, just after having read the usual idiocies from the "" project of the Rideau Institute. As far as I can tell, the former is one of those ageing hippies in the early stages of dementia whose wealthier fellow out-patients the latter is solely designed to bilk of tax-deductible contributions.

I could be wrong, of course, in which case I'd dispense with the ritual of offering a last cigarette and blindfold and go with Bailey's "best bolt-action rifle" pick, Sako's 85 Bavarian. A handsome rifle, with walnut stock and a Schnaebel fore-end. The Bavarian offers a choice of six calibres.


Blogger Mark, Ottawa said...

More on the rifles. Good on the Finns .


8:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I will stick with my long barreled 870 wing master pump (1967) thank you but that Sako looks like a real nice piece of candy. I just might have to check one out.

12:57 AM  
Blogger RadicalOmnivore said...

Good piece Tel'; I learned some stuff.
And fish really is my pasion. You can jinx my hunting all you want but don't -ever-get between me and the scaly critters.
If it comes from the sea I need to eat it:

The Sushi overdose tour of 2009 continues!
Three days in Vancouver, yesterday in Victoria - Octavio's smoked salmon pannini and yet more sushi in the evening. Brilliant!

Now, as delicious as BC wild salmon is, it ain't a scratch on our Arctic Char.

I've been going nuts in bookstores as well - a life on the margins of civilization oblige- Cadboro Bay bookstore needs more Glavin stock BTW.They only had the Last Great Sea; in the "new book" section and hilariously next to some new paen on the Sea Sheep and their fascistic efforts to stop food diversity.

My first time in Victoria and it has a strange and familiar feeling of a UK seaside retirement resort. A bit like Bournemouth where my old Gran' lived.
Lots of MUCH nicer cars though.

Boy; there's some dough on that island! (Or at least compared to my current island.) I noticed lots of roadside signs indicating fish species habitat and rehabilitation projects which was interesting.

I've met some nice people including an ex Greenpeace Communications dude whose hospitality I enjoyed before I doubtlessly insulted him. I also met some guys who were of some assistance with my nascent dream to get a University set up in NU and I now know where I want to retire

I need some waterfront property where I can wake up by chucking myself in the sea in the morning, go boating and then ski in the afternoon.

Now I just need a new life so as to afford it all.

11:00 AM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

Dang, Iceclass. You should have looked me up. Serious. Cadboro Bay Books is just around the corner from my place. Plus I could have shown you the Victoria that isn't all upper-class tony.

11:14 AM  
Blogger RadicalOmnivore said...

Ya' know I kinda figured that was your neighborhood. Don't ask how; my spidey senses told me so which I why I slyly lured you into confirmation by bringing up the local landmark. ;>
Nice piece of the planet BTW!

Strangely, the missus suggested I look you up and for a brief moment I considered bringing by some local cold smoked Char before dismissing the idea as too much of a cross between a stalker and a groupie.

Besides, she who must be obeyed just pointed out that the nice fellow whose hospitality I abused had nothing to do with Greenpeace but was instead the ex E.D.of an org I believe once funded you for some project or other.
So that shows you how much of a boorish clued out guest I can be and I now think we might know some people in common.

So, I'll look you up on my next trip if you're still willing and in the meantime will have to send my host a small gift of thanks and as an apology.
The EU vote on the seal ban is on the 5th and I was a bit passionate for polite dinner conversation.

In return though, what's it gonna take to get you up to my neck of the tundra?

7:21 PM  

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