Presently the Upper Columbia River in B.C. has not seen the salmon it once did for over eighty years. The sixty plus dams in the Columbia’s watershed are one of their major obstacles to flourish like they once did. First Nations will have their say when the Columbia River Treaty is up for review in 2024; the first time in sixty years.
The dammed river has long been a problem, but the more recent reason for the salmon’s decline, climate change. For over the last century things have been heating up. Since 1900 climate records show that the Pacific Northwest has warmed 1.01/4 degrees C or about 50 per cent more than the average global warming of the same period.
According to recent research studies through Watershed Watch Salmon Society recent decades have had global air temperatures on the rise, reaching much hotter temperatures than anticipated, and breaking records.
More heat in the air means warmer water temperatures which is bad news for salmon that thrive in colder waters. Warming waters, and droughts can have a direct effect on salmon habitats while drying up their spawning ground, ending up stranded and unable to migrate. Seasons change, yet the fate of the salmon as of late have not.
During winters in B.C., a snowpack that is below its average size means a lower-than-average flow in rivers like the Columbia and its tributaries, which results in water temperatures being higher. Summers as of late have also been hotter and drier.
Less precipitation brings us back to the same problem of less flow, and water that warms more quickly. Any water temperature above 25 degrees will outright kill salmon while anything above 18 degrees will alter their behaviour affecting their ability to outswim their predators and dig their nests. Warmer water is also harmful to a salmon’s immune system making them more vulnerable to viruses and pathogens in the water.
Most of us are oblivious to all the effects of climate change, especially for a species like salmon. Forest fires and landslides are also affecting the quality of life for these crimson beauties. Forest fires in B.C. were at an all-time high during the years of 2017 and 2018. It’s astonishing how everything is connected on mother earth.
Less shade from the trees affects soil, creating an increase in slope instability, and erosion, all leading to sediment finding its way into more streams, and rivers. Habitats of the salmon are then compromised with sediment or gravel smothering salmon nests which are referred to as redds. Less shade along the stream once again puts the salmon in hot water, or at least that of a warmer temperature that does not bode well for them.
So, what can be done? The necessity of the Columbia Valley’s dams will be up for discussion in 2024. However, in the meantime, there are initiatives and events to make the local waters run red again, such as the Columbia River Salmon Restoration Initiative and the Bringing Home the Salmon Festival which will take place on May 3 and 4. Still, the community needs experts at Watershed Watch Salmon Society state governments need to step up and invest in salmon-friendly renewable energy. A first step would be a significant reduction in the production and use of toxic harmful fossil fuels like fracked gas and oil.
There is a small window of time in which we must tackle the issue of declining levels of salmon. That means the protection, and restoration of key habitats, as well as getting salmon farms out of water. There must be thought put into safer approaches to fishing and hatchery production.
To better understand where the current populations of the different species of salmon sit, a better job of monitoring needs to be done. Salmon are certainly not endangered globally but they are in rivers like the Fraser and Columbia. If Indigenous voices are finally truly heard, if the government steps up, and if the rest of us do our part the salmon will find their way and thrive once again.
Chadd Cawson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Columbia Valley Pioneer