Lessons from the smoke: how sockeye have sounded the climate change alarm

Through the smoke and flame there’s bad news on many fronts today about British Columbia’s sockeye runs, our own province’s magnificent counterpart to the plains buffalo or the massive herds of the Serengeti.

Not least of the threats: rising water temperatures which can trigger exhaustion and death in migrating salmon, driving down spawning success. Then there’s rising acidification of the ocean as it soaks up carbon dioxide, as well as the microparticles of plastic that are concentrating in the food chain.

According to new BC research, rising water temperatures could depress the sockeye runs by more than 20 percent, forcing a dramatic rise in retail prices. This is absolutely the wrong way to improve prices to fishermen. There is no silver lining here and such major declines may make sockeye harvesting a thing of the past in most of the province.

It was always likely that sockeye would sound the climate change alarm. Scientists have long known that the runs are at the extreme end of their range along the 49th Parallel and even minor climatic changes could have a dramatic impact.

But weather is not the only challenge. Bristol Bay sockeye, which return to cold Bering Sea rivers still free of industrial activity, appear to be having their own problems this year, returning at much below forecast levels. This suggests problems in the wider ocean ecosystem.

Just five years ago, the 2010 sockeye salmon run defied conventional wisdom and came storming back with a run of nearly 30 million fish, far above the two million recorded just a few years before. That 2010 run produced another solid 2014 return of more than 20 million fish, enough to meet First Nations requirements and leave plenty for harvest, processing and export.

All our salmon runs have the potential to be great again.

With the city’s skies grey with smoke, much of it generated by deadwood in forests already scarred by mountain pine beetle, the reality of climate change is no longer in doubt. If only we could say the same for the provincial and federal government’s willingness to confront that reality.