Wednesday, August 19, 2009

9 Million Salmon Disappear Mysteriously From Fraser River

I live very close to the Fraser River on Canada's West Coast. In fact, I am only a 4 min. sky train ride from part of the estuary. The Fraser River used to serve as a spawning ground to about 10.6 million sockeye salmon every summer. It was known as the world's most fertile spawning grounds for salmon.

As a child, salmon was a fairly regular item on everyone's menu. I used to know an Aboriginal lady who smoked salmon according to the old ways. She produced the most delicious cold-smoked salmon I ever tasted in my life. Somehow, she managed to infuse all the flavourings into the fish while still leaving it moist and succulent.

At outdoor festivals, barbecued salmon, smoked salmon, salmon jerky, salmon teriyaki, and many other salmon dishes were sold to willing buyers. Children sucked delightedly on salmon candy - sweetened smoked salmon.

Shockingly, the latest estimate of salmon returning to spawn puts the number of salmon at fewer than 1 million this year. This is a massive drop, despite the fact that the river has been closed to commercial and recreational fishing for three years in a row hitting the Native population hard. Many BC Natives still depend on salmon as an integral part of their aboriginal diets.

The Fraser River. Photo: Wikipedia, GFDL/CC

"It's quite the shocking drop," said Stan Proboszcz, fisheries biologist at the Watershed Watch Salmon Society. "No one's exactly sure what happened to these fish."

Reuters reports on a few theories:
* Climate change may have reduced food supply for salmon in the ocean.
* The commercial fish farms that the young Fraser River salmon pass en route to the ocean may have infected them with sea lice, a marine parasite.
* The rising temperature of the river may have weakened the fish.

Jeff Grout, regional resource manager of salmon for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, feels that the salmon may actually disappearing in the ocean rather than in fresh water. He bases this on the healthy salmon migrations out to sea.

"It's too soon to know yet how widespread salmon losses are in the Pacific salmon fishery; but, British Columbia's northern Skeena River has also seen lower-than-expected returns this year", Grout said.

Grout went on to add that signs are more positive for other salmon species such as chinook, pink and coho.

Image: Wikipedia, Public domain

In the US, the populations of sockeye salmon in Snake River (Idaho, Oregon and Washington area) and in Lake Ozette, Washington, are listed under the Endangered Species Act as endangered and threatened (respectively).

The decline in the salmon returns affects the estuary on many, many levels. After spawning, the adult salmon die - every last one of them. They then become food for the bears looking to fatten up for hibernation; eagles get some easy meals; and the body parts that don't get eaten decay and provide nutrients to the plant life. The lack of salmon will impact not only these areas profoundly; but, will start impinging on the health of other areas and/or species.

Food companies that rely on the Fraser for some of their salmon supply will have to look to other areas of British Columbia or Alaska, Grout warned. This is a real kick in the pants to an area that is known for the quality of their seafood and sells tins of "smoked BC salmon" worldwide to discerning gourmets.

Via: Reuters, TreeHugger

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