In this article published in The Province, K̓áwáziɫ Marilyn Slett — Chief Councillor of the Heiltsuk Nation, President of Coastal First Nations and co-chair of the Wild Salmon Advisory Council to British Columbia — describes the urgency of the salmon crisis and the immediate need for collective action.
Each year, we hear more alarming reports from coastal communities about collapsing salmon stocks and declining returns, and 2020 was no different. In fact, for some rivers along BC’s North and Central coasts, last year was the worst salmon return in recorded history.
It goes without saying, this drastic reduction in populations has far surpassed a crisis point. Without immediate action to restore the species, we will see long-lasting devastating consequences not just for salmon, but for a long list of other species, including us. How we respond to this urgent crisis will say a great deal about our resolve and capabilities as collaborative managers of this vital species.
The importance of healthy salmon populations for coastal First Nations cannot be overstated— especially during the coronavirus pandemic, which has driven home the need for food security in these Nations. Connecting land and marine ecosystems throughout the coast, salmon has been the lifeblood of coastal economies and First Nations’ culture for thousands of years.
Five salmon species—chinook, chum, coho, pink and sockeye—help shape the entire coastal food web along the Pacific Coast, from the open ocean to freshwater streams and rivers that reach far inland. As keystone species, salmon are integral to the health and survival of a diverse range of species—from endangered orcas that patrol coastal waters to bears and wolves that bring nutrient-rich carcasses deep into forested habitats.
First Nations along BC’s North and Central Coasts and Haida Gwaii not only depend on salmon as a major food source and livelihood for local economies; our identity is tied to salmon in ways that are hard to express. Salmon helps define who we are as people.
First Nations have a constitutionally protected right to access salmon for food, social, and ceremonial (FSC) purposes and our access takes priority over all other users after conservation needs are met. Declining populations are not just a tragedy for the species itself and the globally unique ecosystems of which they are a part, but a major threat to our ability to exercise our rights as Indigenous people.
Although the factors causing salmon declines are varied and complex, we know the main causes. Cumulative impacts from more than a century of mismanagement, industrial logging and overfishing, plus climate change, have led to these record low salmon returns. And just as the bottom has dropped out of salmon abundance along the Pacific Coast, we’ve also seen a drastic reduction in monitoring programs by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
First Nations along BC’s North Pacific Coast have made progress, through the Great Bear Rainforest agreements and others, toward ending destructive logging practices and reducing exploitation of fisheries through limiting catches and enforcing strategic closures. We have protected important salmon-bearing watersheds and implemented ecosystem-based management in others, while establishing new stock assessment and catch monitoring programs across our territories.
In 2019, BC’s Wild Salmon Advisory Council released strategic recommendations to increase the abundance of wild salmon and preserve the numerous benefits they provide to our ecosystems, communities and economy, calling for more collaboration and cross-sector investments.
In truth, there are no silver bullet solutions to this crisis. Restoring salmon populations will require a comprehensive effort from all governing bodies—a mix of planning and management actions that will immediately reduce impacts from both commercial and sport fishing, protect important freshwater and ocean salmon habitats, and increase monitoring and data collection. Funding has been committed by Canada and BC but money alone is not enough.
Our sustainable future depends fundamentally on healthy and thriving salmon populations. We must act now for the sake of future generations.