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'In our provincial DNA': Pacific salmon restoration program extended

B.C. salmon are receiving another boost from the government through funding aimed at restoring their habitats. But with many populations still endangered or threatened, some experts say a more cohesive approach is needed.
Sockeye salmon are among the many endangered or threatened species that the government funding aims to protect and restore.

Pacific salmon in B.C. will continue receiving aid from the Ministry of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard (DFO) after more funding was announced Tuesday.

Following the launch of phase one of the B.C. Salmon Restoration and Innovation Fund (BCSRIF) in 2019, both the provincial and federal government are now promising to double their initial investments and launch phase two of the program.

“There was a time when wild Pacific salmon spawned in such great abundance that British Columbia's rivers and streams were teeming with life,” said DFO Minister Joyce Murray. “We want to bring those times back.”

Funded largely by the federal government, the program has poured $200 million into the approved research and restoration projects so far. At the moment, Murray said there is still around $20 million to be spent on imminent additional projects.

Since its inception, 96 projects have been approved for funding, including researching coastal kelp farms as salmon habitats and trapping European green crab as a way to mitigate shared environmental resources.

“[Wild pacific salmon] are at the foundation of Indigenous culture and ways of life. They are integral to B.C. food security, ecosystems and economy,” said Josie Osborne, B.C.'s Minister of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship.

“Wild Pacific salmon are in our provincial DNA.“

A request for new proposals to fulfil phase two of the program will be sent out soon, Murray said. This latest investment will be put towards projects specifically pertaining to the impacts of climate change on salmon, priority salmon stocks, and Indigenous participation and knowledge.

Mike Baird, fisheries coordinator for the Tsawwassen First Nation, is part of a group that’s received almost $900,000 of funding to set up a fish trap just outside of Steveston. With the imminent release of the nets for the trap, he says he’s hopeful the project can provide valuable insight into the state of sockeye salmon populations and habitats. 

“We haven't fished sockeye for three years. This time in 2010, its [return] was 30 million and now I think we're down to like five million,” Baird said. “I'm anxious to see the work that's being done through BCSRIF.”

Recently, Murray also made the decision not to open Canadian commercial fisheries for Fraser River sockeye salmon, despite U.S. fisheries taking an opposite stance. The precautionary move proved justified after subsequent monitoring from the Pacific Salmon Commission now predicts the total sockeye salmon run size to be reduced by over 40 per cent, or 4.2 million fish, compared to pre-season estimates.

Many more years of funding to come

Nineteen distinct populations of Pacific salmon species in the Lower Fraser River have a less than 50 per cent chance of thriving in 25 years, a recent study found.

If business continues ‘as usual,’ the study states that Pacific salmon populations are in serious danger of depletion. However, with an investment of $20 million annually, 14 of these 19 salmon populations could be brought above the 50 per cent threshold.

To do this, the study states that co-governance between First Nations, provincial and federal governments is absolutely critical. Pacific Salmon Foundation president Michael Meneer agrees. 

He plans to take advantage of phase two of the project by discussing opportunities for collaboration between all levels of government and various stakeholders with the DFO.

Meanwhile, using the partnership funds received through BCSRIF, Meneer says his foundation is channelling the collaborative energy into climate adaptation projects for salmon.

One of these projects has taken the shape of a playbook detailing how to rebuild salmon habitats after a forest fire.

“These fires and poor forestry practices that contribute to forest fires also contribute to the loss of stream and river habitat that is critical for salmon during their spawning process,” he said.

The playbook, set to be complete this year, accompanies another that the foundation is working on that will detail how to protect salmon in the event of a flood.

Meneer says he plans to share these guides with governments, decision makers, land managers and other non-profits in an effort to get everyone who’s eager to protect Pacific salmon onto the same page.

“What we lack, unfortunately, in British Columbia is a comprehensive plan, at a high level as well as at a watershed level,” Meneer said. 

“Efforts to improve how we manage the land and the water that salmon need are very fractured.”

The funding and work that’s been done up to this point by both levels of government is commendable, Meneer said. But he says there’s still more to be done. 

Meneer envisions a coordinated plan, workshopped by various Pacific salmon stakeholders all together in the same room. Working from the “watershed up,” he says the federal and provincial governments need to pour their energy into one collaborative plan instead of funding several smaller projects.

“Historically, the way this has happened has been kind of a top-down federal government responding to salmon and, quite frankly, for all the great efforts and investments, that hasn't worked,” Meneer said.

“We need a more collaborative approach to responding to this crisis.”

With phase two just announced, Meneer says the Pacific Salmon Foundation plans to engage in talks with the government about how to develop the approach they believe is necessary for long-lasting salmon restoration.

While Meneer is hopeful about the steps taken so far, he says this level of investment must continue for longer than just the five-year programs the government is announcing.

“What we're looking at is likely, at the very minimum, a 10-year concerted effort to invest and rebuild,” he said. 

“If we're smart about it, we could have a chance to actually turn things around for the salmon.”