Among 28 southern groups of B.C. chinook assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, only two remain “not at risk”. Michael Humling photo

Among 28 southern groups of B.C. chinook assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, only two remain “not at risk”. Michael Humling photo

Scientists worry B.C. hatchery fish threatening endangered wild chinook

Latest ssessments identify more southern populations at risk of extinction

More chinook salmon populations have landed on the endangered species list in B.C.

Among 28 southern groups now assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), only two remain “not at risk.”

“Some of them are not in good shape at all,” said COSEWIC chair John Reynolds.

“It’s risky to predict the future with salmon, because sometimes they surprise us in a good way, but a lot of it will have to do with what people decide they want to do about it. If people want to commit the time and resources, deciding the benefits of recovering these species are greater than the cost, then their future could be different.”

Adding to 2018 assessments on 16 populations, this year COSEWIC focused on 12 southern groups whose numbers are significantly augmented by large-scale hatcheries. Counting only the wild fish, four populations are endangered — the most dire category prior to extinction in the wild— three are threatened, and one is of special concern. As in 2018, just one is not at risk. Three remote populations are data deficient.

With many salmon runs experiencing the lowest returns on record, there has been mounting public pressure for the federal government to step up hatchery production through the Salmonid Enhancement Program.

But conservation groups and scientists are sounding the alarm on the long-term consequences of high-volume hatcheries. Because the genes of fish change rapidly to suit their environment, the biggest concern is fish reared under ideal hatchery conditions will pass on inferior traits. After successive generations, the population could be unfit for the wild.

READ MORE: Thompson, Chilcotin Steelhead Trout in danger of extinction

“If you end up swamping a stream with hatchery genes, I don’t think that is a good recipe for long-term survival of the population, unless you’re prepared to perpetually keep putting out fish from hatcheries. That’s not what DFO’s policy is though. It’s to put wild salmon first,” Reynolds said.

He stressed small community hatcheries have a negligible impact on wild salmon and often benefit smaller depleted runs. The 23 federally-controlled hatcheries of concern release hundreds of millions of juvenile salmon per year.

COSEWIC released its conclusions in November. The detailed findings will not be available until the fall of 2021.

Until then, the actual numbers of wild versus hatchery fish in the latest assessments is unclear, but Reynolds said the competition is “significant — the proportion of hatchery fish can be quite high.”

Importance to fisheries

B.C.’s iconic chinook salmon have high cultural value to First Nations, and are also an economic driver worth hundreds of millions of dollars to both the tourism and commercial fishing industries. The human appetite for chinook is also in competition with more than 100 marine and land animals that favour the food source.

Predation, climate change, salmon farms and over-fishing are often blamed for cumulative impacts on chinook mortality.

The Pacific Salmon Foundation (PSF) is undertaking a comprehensive, first-of-its-kind analysis in B.C. on the impacts of hatcheries, and whether they’re meeting their objectives. PSF Science advisor Brian Riddell emphasized the need for limiting hatchery fish to 30 per cent of a stock, and approaching the unique needs of each wild population individually.

“You can’t have everything at once. You can’t substantially increase the numbers without having an effect on the productivity of the natural stock. But you can have a more balanced approach and gradually restore the population but you have to protect the integrity of the local genetic adaptations.”

READ MORE: Canada can lead the way to save sharks from extinction, says fisheries expert

Both the recreational and commercial fishing sectors are vocal supporters of hatchery production. Sport fishing groups, who say they are unfairly targeted with angling restrictions, are also pushing for the tagging of all hatchery chinook so they can more easily target the fish and potentially enjoy more openings.

Joy Thorkelson, president of the United Fishermen And Allied Workers’ Union agreed, adding all species of hatchery fish are vital to the commercial sector.

“If there wasn’t a hatchery there wouldn’t be any fish,” she said. “As habitat has been destroyed there’s been more populations that are at risk, but they’ve been replaced by hatchery fish so we can continue to catch food. All of the major fisheries depend on hatchery fish to varying degrees.”

Government concerns

B.C.’s new parliamentary secretary for fisheries and oceans, Fin Donnelly, has been given a list of mandates to protect and conserve wild salmon populations, including the order to “support innovation in fish hatcheries”.

Aaron Hill, executive director for the Watershed Watch Salmon Society worries this will translate to a robust hatchery program that caters to the economic needs of fisheries, and not the needs of the wild fish themselves.

In a phone interview, Donnelly shared the concern of hatchery genes being passed to wild populations through federally controlled, large-scale hatcheries, but the strategic use of small hatcheries will remain an important component in provincial efforts to rebuild stocks.

“Community hatcheries and target-based hatcheries—we see it provincially as part of the solution. They play an important role, not just in what they do for salmon rearing, but in education and community engagement.”

The PSF’s scientific review of hatchery impacts will play a critical role in informing the province’s approach, Donnelly added.

The full COSEWIC study will be formally submitted to the environment ministry in the fall of 2021, at which time the Species at Risk Act listing process will begin for the assessed chinook populations.



quinn.bender@blackpress.ca

Chinook salmon protectionFisheries and Oceans Canada

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

(BC Hydro photo)
BC Hydro planned power outages to darken downtown Smithers for most of day Sunday, Jan 17

Replacement of poles will affect approximately 250 customers in downtown core from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Smithers Local Health Area reported 25 new cases of COVID-19 Jan. 3 - 9. (BC CDC graphic)
Weekly new cases of COVID-19 rise to 25 in Smithers LHA Jan. 3 – 9

Northern Health reported 49 new daily cases for 497 active, 44 hospitalized, 13 in critical care

The first of two massive turbines headed from Prince Rupert for the Site C Dam near Fort St. John on Jan 10. (Photo: Supplied by Tasha McKenzie)
Massive turbines begin trek across Northwestern B.C.

Hydro-Electric turbines headed from Prince Rupert to Site C Dam week of Jan. 10 to 14

A scene from “Canada and the Gulf War: In their own words,” a video by The Memory Project, a program of Historica Canada, is shown in this undated illustration. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Historica Canada
New video marks Canada’s contributions to first Gulf War on 30th anniversary

Veterans Affairs Canada says around 4,500 Canadian military personnel served during the war

U.S. military units march in front of the Capitol, Monday, Jan. 18, 2021 in Washington, as they rehearse for President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony, which will be held at the Capitol on Wednesday. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Biden aims for unifying speech at daunting moment for U.S.

President Donald Trump won’t be there to hear it

Williams Lake physician Dr. Ivan Scrooby and medical graduate student Vionarica Gusti hold up the COSMIC Bubble Helmet. Both are part of the non-profit organization COSMIC Medical which has come together to develop devices for treating patients with COVID-19. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
Group of B.C. doctors, engineers developing ‘bubble helmet’ for COVID-19 patients

The helmet could support several patients at once, says the group

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A 17-year-old snowmobiler used his backcountry survival sense in preparation to spend the night on the mountain near 100 Mile House Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021 after getting lost. (South Cariboo Search and Rescue Facebook photo)
Teen praised for backcountry survival skills after getting lost in B.C.’s Cariboo mountains

“This young man did everything right after things went wrong.”

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa on December 10, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
No place for ‘far right’ in Conservative Party, Erin O’Toole says

O’Toole condemned the Capitol attack as ‘horrifying’ and sought to distance himself and the Tories from Trumpism

A passer by walks in High Park, in Toronto, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. This workweek will kick off with what’s fabled to be the most depressing day of the year, during one of the darkest eras in recent history. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
‘Blue Monday’ getting you down? Exercise may be the cure, say experts

Many jurisdictions are tightening restrictions to curb soaring COVID-19 case counts

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
COVID-19: Provinces work on revised plans as Pfizer-BioNTech shipments to slow down

Anita Anand said she understands and shares Canadians’ concerns about the drug company’s decision

Tourists take photographs outside the British Columbia Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday August 26, 2011. A coalition of British Columbia tourism industry groups is urging the provincial government to not pursue plans to ban domestic travel to fight the spread of COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. travel ban will harm struggling tourism sector, says industry coalition

B.C. government would have to show evidence a travel ban is necessary

Most Read