Each spring, approximately 300 million juvenile salmon make their way from every lake, river and stream in the Skeena watershed to the saltwater refuge of the Skeena estuary. These young salmon will become the adult salmon that return to the Skeena watershed during summer and fall.
These returning salmon are now under threat due to unusual warm weather and ocean conditions.
“The little fish, the juvenile salmon coming out of the rivers this spring of 2015, have come into an environment that is very different than what they’ve normally evolved to,” explained ocean scientist Ian Perry. “They’ve come into an environment with poor fish food and a lot more predators.”
“We anticipate this is going to affect their survival, their growth and we are expecting there to be fewer numbers of them coming back in the next one to three years,” he said.
The warm conditions started in the fall of 2013, way out in the middle of the northeast Pacific Ocean. These conditions caused changes in the marine ecosystem. They changed the distribution and migration of fish, including salmon in the high seas and they changed the food web that these fish feed on.
“When we have warm conditions as we have seen, we get the kind of food web that normally exists off California,” said Perry. “These tend to be much smaller animals; they’re very poor in fat and they’re not very good food for fish.”
“At the same time as we have a poorer food web, we tend to have a lot more predatory fish come up from the south,” he added.
According to Jeff Grout, Regional Salmon Resource Manager, it is still early to predict the extent of the impact these conditions will have on the salmon making their way back up the Skeena watershed.
“We’re very early in the migration there,” he said. “The returns are tracking fairly low at this point, probably less than a million but it’s still early up in the Skeena.”
“We have not made any plans for commercial fisheries at this point [at the Skeena watershed] and we’re still actively monitoring the situation there,” he added.
Lake Babine Nation Chief Wilf Adam said he has concerns over the returning salmon in the area.
“We were to get a good run but the numbers from the test fisheries area do not look promising,” he said. “I can’t say the amount that is estimated definitely, but what is shown is low.”
“I hope it will pick up, if not, it will not be good for our food fish this year,” he said.
Grout said the salmon population is being monitored across the province, and that fisheries will be planned accordingly.
“We will be looking to plan fisheries for First Nations, commercial and recreational harvesters in a sustainable manner that allows us to meet our conservation objectives for the population,” he said. “Fishery officers are going to be conducting an enhanced program of compliance to be out on the water doing patrols during the day and at night to detect violations, remove any illegal fishing gear in the water and deter any poaching activity.”
Grout said it is unknown how long these warm conditions will last.
“The expectation from the U.S. National and Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is that these warm conditions are going to continue at least until October 2015,” he said. “Environment Canada has forecast a 90 per cent chance of temperatures above normal through the summer and a greater than 40 per cent chance of below normal precipitation.”