Friday, September 11, 2009

Salmon Missing - Bears Starving

This is not an uncommon sight in the area I live in if you know where to go.

Several weeks ago I wrote a blog about the 9 million salmon missing from British Columbia, Canada's, annual salmon run. Scientists were mystified as to what could have happened to this many salmon. Where did they go? What happened to them?

Another source of great speculation was how this might affect the grizzly bears who depend on the salmon to provide the much-needed fat and protein so crucial if they are to survive hibernation.

Photo: Flickr, CC

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” First, 9 million salmon fail to show up for the annual salmon run. Now, the grizzlies seem to be disappearing and traditional knowledge attributes this to the bears starving to death because of the salmon run that wasn’t.

Reports from conservationists, salmon-stream walkers and ecotourism guides all along British Columbia's wild central coast are reporting that the lack of a salmon run this year has triggered widespread hunger and death from starvation in the black and grizzly bear populations. These guides are on the front-line in reporting this disaster that is so new biologists have not had a chance to document it. No one knows yet what impact the decline in the bear population will have on other species and the ecosystem.

“I've never experienced anything like this. There has been a huge drop in the number of bears we see,” said Doug Neasloss, a bear-viewing guide with the Kitasoo-Xaixais tribes in Klemtu, about 180 kilometres south of Kitimat. We are very lucky to have large indigenous native populations who have lived off the land for centuries gaining invaluable natural knowledge that allowed them to identify this crisis from the beginning.

Mr. Neasloss said in recent weeks that he and other guides have visited 16 rivers where they usually encounter groups of bear feeding on spawning salmon.

“I've been doing this for 11 years and this is the worst I've seen it,” he said. “Last year on the Mussel River, I saw 27 bears. This year it's six. That's an indication of what it's like everywhere.”

He said on another river last fall, he saw 12 black bears and three spirit bears, rare black bears with white fur. “This year, there are three black bears and no white bears,” he said.

Photo: Kermode or Spirit bear. Photo courtesy Marni Grossman

Mr. Neasloss points out that for several years salmon runs have been in decline in the area; but, last year was particularly bad. “I've never seen bears hungry in the fall before, but last year, they were starving,” he said. “I noticed in the spring there weren't as many bears coming out; but, I felt it was premature to jump to any conclusions. … but now there just aren't any bears. It's scary. I think a lot are dead. I think they died in their dens [last winter],” he said.

Ian McAllister, Conservation Director of Pacific Wild, (great, great website!!) a non-profit conservation group on Denny Island, near Bella Bella, said he's heard similar reports.

“I've talked to stream walkers [who monitor salmon runs] who have been out for a month and have yet to see any bears,” he said. “There are just no bears showing up. I hear that from every stream walker on the coast.”

Mr. McAllister said it used to be easy to visit salmon streams in the Great Bear Rainforest, a large area of protected forest on the central coast, and see 20 to 30 bears a day feasting on salmon. “Now you go out there and there are zero bears. The reports are coming in from Terrace to Cape Caution … the bears are gone,” he said.

The Great Bear Rainforest is a global ecological treasure. It is home to 1,000-year-old western red cedars, trees as tall as 30-storey buildings and the rare white Kermode bear--or “Spirit” Bear. This dazzling coastal forest stretches from Bute Inlet on B.C.’s south coast to the Alaskan border to the north. Covering 6.4 million hectares, the Great Bear Rainforest represents 25 percent of the earth’s remaining ancient coastal temperate rainforests.

“And we haven't seen any cubs with mothers. That's the most alarming part of this,” Mr. McAllister said. So not only are the bears dying in their dens during hibernation; but, no cubs are being born to replace those that die. No one knows where this will go or how it will end. Or if they are, they could conceivably starve to death in the den if their mothers have died and they are unable to nurse.

Mr. McAllister said the problem is that chum salmon runs in the area have collapsed. While there are strong runs of pink salmon into rivers on the central coast, chum, which are much bigger fish that spawn later in the year, are the key food item for bears preparing for hibernation. The salmon are vital for the bears to build up their fat reserves that will carry them through the winter. Without an adequate supply of big salmon late in the year, bears do not have enough fat to survive the winter in their dens.

“The lack of salmon last fall, coupled with a long, cold winter, is what's at the root of this,” Mr. McAllister said.

“River systems that in the past had 50,000 to 60,000 chum have now got 10 fish,” he said. “The chum runs have been fished out. We've seen the biological extinction of a [salmon] species, and now we're seeing the impact on bears.”

There have been calls on the government to close all chum-salmon fisheries and to cancel the fall grizzly hunt. While the hunt has always been controversial; it is felt the bears won't be able to withstand this additional onslaught in their weakened conditions. Unfortunately, the government did not listen and the hunt has started.

The worst salmon disaster this year has been on the Fraser River, on the south coast, where 10.6 million sockeye were expected, but only about 1.6 million returned.

“The collapse of the Fraser sockeye and now the north-coast chum salmon runs is leading to ecological collapse of our coast ecosystems,” said Mr. McAllister.

Via Globe and Mail

Typical salmon-catching behaviour:

1 comment:

kathi said...

Hope the river walkers are extra careful since they are 'meals on wheels' for starving bears.