Thursday, November 04, 2004

Where's the concern for the threatened wild salmon

VICTORIA - The salmon are scrabble their way up Goldstream Creek near here, a spectacle I find mostly sad. Half-blind, exhausted, they fight for a space to spawn, doing all they can to keep the species alive. The last fish make their way past greying, tattered bodies, eyes gone to the sharp beaks of seagulls.
It's surprising how easily British Columbians have come to accept that the wild salmon may soon be just a memory.
B.C.'s Auditor General Wayne Strelioff has just released an audit on the future of wild salmon, part of a joint project with his counterparts in Ottawa and New Brunswick.
The report is bleak reading, warning that after a consistent effort through the '90s to protect and rebuild wild salmon stocks B.C. has lost its way.
The future of wild salmon is at risk.
Species come and go, and I'm no extremist. It seems questionable to spend huge amounts of money to preserve the last few dozen Vancouver Island marmots, a species with few chances of survival.
But the fight to save the salmon seems worth the cost.
Practically, the salmon fishery is still a significant source of jobs and economic activity, worth some $600 million a year, mainly through sport fishing. The potential, with assured stocks and better marketing, is much greater.
The salmon is a spectacular creature, capable of amazing feats in making its way out into the ocean before returning and working its way sometimes hundreds of kilometres up-river to spawn. British Columbians have always valued the fish; it would seem wrong that we become the generation that just didn't care enough to protect the salmon.
It's also a useful indicator species, showing how committed - or cavalier - we are about the environment. Salmon need clean, unaltered rivers and creeks, and protection from pollution and over-fishing. If they vanish, it is because wild rivers are vanishing.
Strelioff is an auditor, a branch of the accouting world that makes the rest of the accountants world seem like wild and crazy guys. His reports tend to be measured and understated.
His warnings on salmon are blunt. The B.C. government isn't doing enough to protect habitat, has no clear vision for the future of wild salmon and has left too many unanswered questions about the risks from salmon farms. "Strong leadership is lacking and there is no central co-ordination body to oversee provincial activities," he found.
Between 1994 and 2001 the government was spending about $50 million a year on watershed protection and habitat restoration. That's been cut by 80 per cent, Strelioff found.
So far the Liberals have not delivered on their New Era campaign promises to introduce a Living Rivers Act and a 10-year fish habitat restoration program.
The failure has left a large gap, Strelioff said. "Existing provincial legislation and regulations do not provide adequate protection for salmon habitat, because some key provisions are either not in force or not being acted on."
And then there is fish farming.
Strelioff doesn't find any evidence that salmon aquaculture is necessarily a threat to wild stocks, and he praises the work governments have done over the last decade to set out appropriate regulations. It's a conclusion consistent with most of the research done.
But there are still questions hanging over the aquaculture industry, around disease transfer, sea lice and the risk of competition from escaped Atlantic salmon. "Ongoing research is needed in these areas to ensure that salmon aquaculture does not pose an unacceptable risk to wild salmon and the environment," he warns.
It's a worrying report. More worrying was the government's bland assurances that things are really OK, without addressing in any substantial way the problems and threats raised by the auditor general.
And even more worrying is the lack of public reaction.
The government is drifting on protection of wild salmon, and failing to tackle key issues that threaten their survival. And British Columbians don't much seem to care.
Footnote: The Pearse-McRae federal-provincial report proposing radical change for the commercial salmon fishery is still under review six months after it was released. The report proposed creating long-term licences for fishermen, giving them a stake in management and enhancement of the stocks.

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