British Columbia has long been a mecca for steelhead anglers and the province is home to some of the healthiest remaining populations of wild steelhead in the world.
Blessed with more than 600 miles of coastline it is easy to imagine British Columbia’s wealth of salmon bearing watersheds is inexhaustible. Unfortunately this is far from true, steelhead and salmon have declined significantly as the result of human activities in many parts of the province and healthy populations in the Skeena and Central Coast face a litany of threats including bycatch in commercial salmon fisheries, coal bed methane extraction in the headwaters of the Skeena and a proposed pipeline from the Alberta Tar Sands to the BC coast which would cross the Skeena and its tributaries in several locations.
Further South, Vancouver Island has been devastated by logging. Rivers that were home to legendary anglers such as Roderick Haig-Brown and General Noel Money are a shadow of their former glory. Logging and urbanization has also contributed to the decline of many populations in the Lower Mainland.
One issue that is unique to British Columbia in the Pacific is the impact of open containment salmon farms on wild populations. Since 2005 research has been demonstrating the toll that salmon farming can exact on the survival of adjacent populations of wild salmon. Salmon farms place extremely high densities of potential hosts in the migration routes of millions of juvenile and adult salmon spreading parasites and diseases to wild populations. The industry has proliferated extremely quickly over the last two decades and in most places where salmon farms operate there is a dangerous lack of information on the effect these farms are having on wild fish.
What is clear though is that throughout the history of the salmon farming industry, wherever salmon farms have gone, wild populations have suffered and there have been conspicuous declines in the productivity of salmon populations in areas where fish farms operate in BC. The situation has been compounded by institutional problems within the Canadian government, and the agencies tasked with protecting and managing wild salmon are also responsible for the promotion and development of salmon farming. The result has been agencies unwilling to ask hard questions of the industry and in some cases obstructing inquiry into the role these farms have played in depressing wild runs.
When it comes to the future of salmon in the Northwest, British Columbians have much to gain and much to lose. From ground level the BC coastline may seem infinite, unable to ever be reached by the hands of exploitive industry and development. Despite the vastness of the coastal wilderness, salmon and their watersheds are finite. With the challenges facing British Columbia, the next decade will in many ways decide the future of wild salmon in the province. Fortunately, BC’s citizens are increasingly standing up and telling their government that they will not stand by and allow wild salmon, one of their most economically, historically and culturally important natural resources be sacrificed in the interest of corporate profits.