Decline in sockeye productivity underlines role of environment — not just overfishing — in stock strength

New evidence of long-term declines in the productivity of sockeye stocks underlines the tremendous long-term damage industrial activity is inflicting on fish habitat and the environment in general.

The study found that sockeye runs in Washington, BC and southeast Alaska that used to produce 20 adults for each spawner now manage to produce only three.  Some have productivity below the 1:1 ratio.

But runs in north and western Alaska, particularly Bristol Bay, are maintaining historic levels of productivity. Is it a coincidence that these watersheds are the only sockeye systems free of urbanization, industrial activity and logging?

Even more worrisome is the fact that this study, which covered the years between 1950 and 2009, does not cover the recent impact of climate change, which is driving fundamental shifts in the ecology of vast areas of the province as mountain pine beetle destroys billions of trees.

For a generation, at least, overfishing was blamed for run declines and the salmon fishery has now been virtually closed. Yet salmon runs have not recovered. This latest study, completed for the Cohen Commission, confirms what many feared — the battle against overfishing distracted government from tackling the much tougher issue of protecting fish habitat.

Recent proposed changes to the Fisheries Act would make that work even harder, lowering the bar to allow even more destruction of fish and fish habitat.

Fortunately, as the astonishing runs of 2010 demonstrated, sockeye can bounce back if we give them a chance. Will we?