Where have all the salmon gone? You might expect to hear this from your fishing buddy after an unsuccessful outing on the water. It is much more alarming when marine biologists, scientists and conservation researchers are asking it with increasing frequency. If bears, eagles and orcas could talk…well, we would never hear the end of it.
Along the coast of the Pacific Northwest, traditional spawning channels that once overflowed with salmon are experiencing low or no returns. Even rivers like the Fraser in British Columbia, known for decades for its abundant salmon stocks, has experienced year after year of dwindling returns. What used to be measured in the millions is now measured in the hundreds or in some cases, the dozens.
In Clayoquot Sound, off of Vancouver Island’s wild West Coast, Native communities have relied on salmon as a dietary staple. In its absence, less healthy and non-traditional foods are substituted at an increasingly dangerous cost to the community. Other animals, like those mentioned above, also rely on salmon for survival. Ecologists have seen the consequences repeatedly: the year after salmon decline in a particular area, fewer bears and wolves return to traditional feeding areas in the following year. While some may move to other hunting grounds, most simply do not survive the year.
Beyond the Water
At the same time, hundreds of thousands of spawning salmon provide nutrient-rich natural fertilizer for vegetation along the watershed. Tiny mosses and huge trees also depend on salmon. The ripple effect through the ecosystem is alarming.
While the impact on our kitchen table or restaurant menu may seem inconsequential, the impact on the food chain – of which we are integrally connected – is severe. Whether we eat salmon or not, their continued decline will eventually affect us in some way.
So, why are wild Pacific salmon disappearing? Will it continue? There are numerous reasons given for the decline in wild salmon stocks: climate change and ocean acidification, contaminants from human activity, pathogens from fish farms are some of the common targets. The answers to these questions are probably as complex as this miraculous creature and role it plays in ecosystem health along the Pacific coast.
Increased collaboration among conservation groups, scientists and governments is required to explore this devastating problem before recovery is impossible. Whether your relationship with salmon takes place in a fish market, a restaurant or in the streams and rivers that feed the Pacific Ocean, you can take action to protect an entire ecosystem. Commit some time or money to legitimate organizations and groups that engage in salmon habitat restoration or study potential causes of declining stocks. Demand changes to government and corporate policies that degrade salmon habitat for short-lived economic benefits.
The stakes are high. The stocks are low. The salmon need you.