Marine biologists in B.C. are sounding the alarm on declining salmon and shellfish stocks amid rising temperatures and worsening heatwaves in the Pacific Northwest. Experts warn that many of the local species B.C. takes pride in — namely salmon, mussels, and clams — may soon disappear from seafood menus across the province as human-caused climate change forces cold-water species to move north.
In their stead, marine life that prefer warmer water may replace them — like the Humboldt squid, whose native habitat stretches from Tierra del Fuego in South America up to California.
Gone may be the days when B.C. restaurants proudly proclaim they serve locally caught salmon. Fans of the fish may have to travel to Alaska to enjoy it — and sooner rather than later.
William Cheung, a marine biologist at UBC and Canada Research Chair in Ocean Sustainability and Global Change, said populations of salmon, a cold-water species, will reach crisis levels within the next 10 years. And when the supply of an in-demand product declines, price hikes are soon to follow.
“If sockeye salmon from B.C. waters continue to decline as we projected from our previous modelling work, what it means is that the price for locally caught salmon will increase,” Cheung told Global News.
“I think then, locally caught sockeye salmon will become a kind of luxury seafood product,” Cheung said.
“If we continue on our current path, I see that this is going to (happen) very soon. I think it may even be in this decade.”
A 2015 report by Vancity found that by 2050, the price of sockeye salmon may increase by more than 70 per cent per pound.
And it’s not just prices that people need to worry about if salmon stocks continue to decline.
“When something becomes expensive, it becomes desirable and people are more likely to overfish it,” said Chris Harley, a professor of zoology at UBC.
“There are all sorts of strange consequences of climate change that involve the way people behave, that we really don’t have a good handle on. So I think a lot of the surprises that we will face will be economic ones, or social ones, and not just ecological ones.”
In terms of social impacts, Indigenous nations will bear the brunt of the negative effects caused by declining salmon stocks.
Indigenous knowledge holders in B.C. who have been monitoring salmon returns for decades are “unequivocal” in their concern for the species, according to Andrea Reid, principal investigator for UBC’s Centre for Indigenous Fisheries.
Salmon are a vital and culturally important species for many Indigenous nations that have counted on their relationship with the fish for millennia. Salmon are important not just as a food source; the species also features in language systems, laws, rituals, trade, and relational knowledge. In fact, the Nisga’a Nation, which Reid is a citizen of, considers itself “Salmon People,” as do many other Indigenous nations in the Pacific Northwest.
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According to a study conducted by Reid, Indigenous elders who have been harvesting salmon for 50 to 70 years have seen an 83 per cent decrease in salmon stocks compared with their historical abundance. This trend has also been found in government monitoring.
Data from the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission show that in 2013, over 15 million salmon were caught by commercial and recreational fishers in B.C. By 2021, that number plummeted to just 1.14 million salmon.
The danger of salmon populations collapsing is so great that some Indigenous nations have foregone their constitutionally guaranteed fishing rights in order to preserve the species’ numbers.
In the summer of 2020, the Tsilhqot’in Nation closed all of its chinook and sockeye salmon fisheries, citing “a catastrophic situation” and “extreme conservation concern,” after the nation saw its lowest salmon return ever recorded.
“We know the incredible hardship this means for our families and communities — not only the loss of food for our freezers this winter but also foregoing our rights to practise our culture and teach our young ones what it means to be Tsilhqot’in — the River People,” leaders wrote in a statement.
“We believe that our responsibilities to the salmon and to our future generations leave us no choice,” the Tsilhqot’in National Government added. “If one person or group thinks they deserve more than the other then we are destined to lose everything.”
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Last year’s heat dome in Western Canada proved deadly after temperatures soared over 40 degrees Celsius for several days in a row. Over 600 people in B.C. died as a result of the scorching weather. So, too, did about one billion sea creatures.
Harley famously helped estimate that number after the heat dome left him wondering how sea life was faring as people across B.C. were warned to stay indoors. He made his way to the coast and even before he got there, he knew something major was happening.
“Be grateful that I can’t actually share the smell,” Harley said.
“It smelled more like what would happen if you left raw fish in a dumpster for a few hot days. It was just terrible.”
Much of the sea life that died off during the heatwave was intertidal shellfish that were exposed to the beating sun during low tide. In particular, mussels and clams, popular options on local seafood menus, died off in droves. Oysters, which are typically hardier species and better adapted to warmer weather, also suffered.
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Troy Hutchings, who farms Pacific oysters in Okeover Inlet, told The Tyee last year that 80 per cent of his oysters died during the 2021 heat dome.
“It will take at least three to four years to get my business back to where it was before,” Hutchings said. “The oysters that are still alive are not a good fit for sale either.”
And Harley says it’s only a matter of time before another mass die-off event happens.
“I think we’re going to look back on the 2021 heat dome and say, ‘Oh yeah, remember when that was unusual? Remember, when it only got to 49 degrees in Lytton?’”
“I think those records are going to be broken again and again,” Harley added.
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The effect of these catastrophic heat domes, and rising temperatures in general, is that the species that can survive such upheaval are rarely the native ones. They’re coming from down south.
“If you love salmon, that’s not great news, because salmon is a cold-water fish. If you love squid, well then you’re in luck because we’re seeing more squid and more tuna off the coast of British Columbia,” Harley said. “And so we’re going to start seeing those types of species in our restaurants and on our tables more often.”
Cheung has found that this trend is not new. In fact, the average temperature of the seafood offered by local restaurants has been steadily increasing for over one hundred years, with a more significant spike after the 1980s.
After analyzing hundreds of seafood restaurant menus in B.C., ranging from the modern day to the beginning of the 20th century, Cheung discovered that local menus were changing in relation to rising ocean temperatures in the Pacific.
Using our knowledge of what temperature certain sea creatures prefer to live in, Cheung calculated the mean temperature of each seafood menu.
“When we compare that over time, we find there is an increase in temperature of the species that are being served,” Cheung said.
He said that means more warmer water species are being served nowadays than in the past few decades. “That change is also related to changes in the ocean temperature.”
What this study shows is that climate change is impacting what and how we eat. But Cheung also noted that it demonstrates the adaptability of local food systems to change as the ecology changes.
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While humans may be able to keep up with these upheavals to the ecosystem, animals that have adapted to a specific ecology won’t be as lucky.
Harley predicts that B.C.’s shoreline will soon change from a “black velvety carpet of mussels to a jagged carpet of oysters,” since they spawn in warmer waters.
“They’re both filter feeders, but they form habitats in different ways. And all the animals that have been in British Columbia for untold millennia have evolved with mussels,” Harley said. ”
“Will they be able to make the shift to oysters? A lot of that is unknown.”
Exploring Indigenous solutions
One thing many marine biologists are calling for is embracing greater Indigenous governance in conservation and shifting focus away from profit-driven fishing to practices that respect the relational nature of ecosystems.
“There’s surging interest in Indigenous knowledge systems at this time of ecological crisis, because these are ways of knowing that deal with unpredictability and with uncertainty and variability very well, because they’re really responsive,” Reid told Global News.
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For shellfish, those solutions can be found in Indigenous clam gardens, an ancient management practice that dates back at least 3,500 years. Clam gardens are a type of sea garden that help promote species growth. Other kinds of sea gardens include stone fish traps and intertidal octopus houses, which are used extensively in Haida Gwaii.
To create a clam garden, harvesters construct a rock-walled terrace in an intertidal zone to create a flat, farmable area. The sand within is tilled and pebbles and clam shells can be added.
Anne Salomon, a marine ecologist from Simon Fraser University, studied the impacts of clam gardens on beach biodiversity and found that they quadrupled the production of butter clams and doubled the production of littleneck clams. It was the first study to show empirical evidence that the long-used technique boosted clam populations.
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In keeping with the ideas of Indigenous relational knowledge, the research also found that clam gardens attracted seaweed, crabs, sea cucumbers and other marine species — making the ecosystem as a whole healthier.
Salomon told Global News that clam gardens help regulate temperature, making them cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. She’s currently working on an experiment that simulates heat-dome-like conditions to see if clam gardens can help the shellfish withstand extreme temperatures.
For salmon, Reid points to a number of Indigenous fishing technologies that conserve healthy populations of the species while still sustaining communities. While large-scale industrial fisheries capture migrating groups of salmon out in the ocean, Indigenous nations typically farm salmon upstream, where different populations of salmon segregate themselves to their specific spawning areas.
This enables Indigenous fishers to discern which stocks of salmon are stronger and which are weaker.
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“Certain stocks we’re going to leave alone and other ones we can target because they have enough abundance to sustain it,” Reid said. “And it also allows us to decide in real time as we harvest those fish if we’re going to release all the females and harvest just the males to reduce impacts on the population.”
While harvesting upstream helps Indigenous communities make clear decisions about harvesting, it also means that they are encountering salmon populations after commercial fishers have already had their shot. The migratory path of salmon begins in the oceans, where large-scale fishing outfits typically operate, and then they travel upstream to spawn — leading to even lower salmon yields for Indigenous communities.
This disparity in access is reflective of a colonized country, Reid said, noting how frustrating it is for Indigenous nations to see their salmon stocks depleted by fisheries that don’t honour the species the way they do.
“Salmon were stolen, salmon fishing methodologies were taken,” Reid said. “Not everyone’s relationship to salmon is the same, and given the very sincere cultural centrality of salmon — that we identify as Salmon People — the loss of salmon is just so profound. It’s one that’s incredibly hard to replace.”
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