Every fall, thousands of people gather by rivers in British Columbia (B.C.) to watch the miraculous journey made by salmon returning from the ocean to their birthplace, swimming against the river currents to breed. This annual event is important for their survival, and for the people and animals who depend on salmon for food.
The Coast Salish people, part of the indigenous population of B.C., have long embraced salmon as a vital part of their diet. Theirs is one of the oldest known fishing cultures in the world and traditionally they depend on salmon caught during the fall run for nutrition through the winter. Even now, some First Nations communities still rely on fishing as a major source of food, and their right to fish is protected under the Constitution Act of 1982.
During the fall, sexually mature salmon make their way to where they were born in order to breed. The difficult journey is their last as most die after laying and fertilizing their eggs. Two to six months later, millions of these eggs hatch and the minnows spend three years maturing in the streams. Despite each female laying up to 10,000 eggs at once, less than 10 will make it to adulthood and swim downstream to the ocean. After four years, the survivors return to breed, repeating the circle of life.
B.C. is the province with the largest population of Pacific salmon. There are five types but the most most well-known are sockeye and chinook. Sockeye salmon are characterized by the red hue they take on when they are ready to spawn. Although not as distinctive, chinook salmon is the largest species in the province. The heaviest chinook ever caught weighed 57 kilograms.
The B.C. salmon population has been experiencing a decline since the 1980s due to climate change, over fishing, and human interference. When the fish were plentiful, the migration would trigger a change in the chemical make-up of the water. Now, the population has dwindled so much that the federal government has imposed several restrictions concerning the fishing of Chinook salmons in April.
A big factor that has contributed to the decline is commercial over fishing. A study published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatics found that almost half of the salmon populations assessed as “poor” would’ve been rated better had Canadian fisheries curbed their numbers.
Also, the installation of artificial dams on known migration routes serves to weaken the already debilitated populations, even with the inclusion of fish ladders.
In an attempt to rectify this, conservationists have attempted to increase populations by artificial breeding before releasing them in the wild. However, according to Captive Breeding and the Conservation of Wild Salmon Population, a study by Dr. Ian A. Fleming, a professor at Newfoundland’s Memorial University, Department of Ocean Sciences, found captive breeding actually introduces unfavourable genes into the wild population. He concluded that the only solution is to address the original cause for decline.
The reduction of salmon populations spells disaster for the Canadian ecosystem. Salmon are what scientists call keystone species, meaning that in relation to their biomass, the impact they have on other species is greater than would be expected since animals such as grizzly bears and bald eagles depend on them as a food source.
How can you help?
The most obvious way is by reducing your eco footprint. A major factor in the decline of the salmon population is climate change, the warmer weather not only makes them more vulnerable to parasites, predators and diseases, but it also makes it harder for the salmon to swim. Bring your own reusable bag when you go shopping, walk or bike instead of driving, stop using single-use plastics, for instance, replace single-use straws with washable ones.
A more direct way to help includes volunteering on community projects that help protect salmon. You can also limit your water usage, and dependence on chemicals such as pesticides, fertilizers, and phosphates (often found in cleaning solutions).
If you don’t live in the West coast, have no fear, Atlantic salmon also migrates upstream. Here are some rivers within the GTA where you can watch the salmon run:
- Scarborough: Highland Creek at Morningside Park
- North York: Don River at Charles Sauriol Conservation Area
- Etobicoke: Old Mill Dam at Etienne Brule Park and Raymore Park Dam at Raymore Park
- Mississauga: Credit River at the Culham Trail, Riverwood Conservancy, and Hewick Meadows Park
- Pickering: Duffins Creek at Greenwood Conservation Area and Whitevale Damn at Whitevale Park
By Vy Tran
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