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When the fish don’t come

Dene Moore: This year’s Fraser River salmon count is apocalyptic, and measures to fix it aren’t much better than prayer.

There was some “good news” reported this month for the beleaguered Fraser River salmon.

As water levels came down to normal, large numbers of salmon were arriving at the site of a landslide at Big Bar, said federal fisheries officials. And as of August 12, almost 39,000 salmon had made it past the slide, most of them chinook.

To put this good news in perspective, the run used to regularly exceed 20 million sockeye alone and reach up to 40 million sockeye, according to the Pacific Salmon Commission. There are those who say it was once triple that, the river running red with the teeming backs of spawning salmon.

As recently as 2010 – a singular and unexpected year after consistently dismal returns prompted a multimillion-dollar public inquiry – more than 28 million sockeye swam up the Fraser River system to spawn.

This year, the estimate from DFO is that 283,000 sockeye will return to the Fraser River system. Yes, 283,000. That is not a typo – a full order of magnitude fewer than the disastrous 2010 run.

So, despite the headlines, let’s be clear: there is no good news about salmon and their continued existence in the longest river system in the province, one stretching 1,375 kilometres from the Strait of Georgia to its headwaters near Mount Robson in the Rocky Mountain range.

These storied creatures that have inspired art and lore, that lie at the crux of many First Nations’ cultures, and that have supported many thousands of sport fishing and commercial fishing families, may very well be functionally extirpated on the Fraser River system in our immediate future.

The same keystone species whose failing fortunes were at the centre of a fairly recent $37-million public inquiry have collapsed almost completely.

Efforts by Nations along the river – the Gitxsan, Sta’t’imc, Secwepemc, Syilx – to catch and carry salmon over the slide and to hatcheries for emergency conservation is more of a prayer than a realistic strategy for salvation.

This is, sadly, not shocking news. Surely, we have been talking about the sad state of the Fraser River salmon for generations? And just as surely, they’re still around, right?

Yes, until they aren’t.

A rock slide in Big Bar Canyon on the Fraser River in June of last year was devastating, but only a single, natural disaster blow in a battle the fish have been losing for decades.

The public inquiry into the decline of sockeye salmon, called the Cohen Commission, made 75 recommendations in its 2012 report.

It was only the most recent in a long and expensive list of papers and reports and studies that have documented a decades-long decline in what should be a renewable resource.

They don't bite like they used to.

In its most recent Cohen Commission report card, the Watershed Watch Salmon Society found that 18 out of 20 deadlines set out in the recommendations had lapsed without meaningful and transparent government action.

One of the top recommendations of commissioner Bruce Cohen, a former B.C. Supreme Court justice, was this:

“In relation to wild fisheries, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans should act in accordance with its paramount regulatory objective to conserve wild fish.”

In its update on the report recommendations, the department says it does. That may be the saddest part of the story – that this is where we’ve arrived with a regulatory body doing its very best.

First Nations along the Fraser River system have closed fishing to ensure as many salmon as possible make it to spawning grounds. The First Nations Leadership Council has called on federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan to issue an emergency order closing all sockeye fisheries on the river.

The Cohen Commission made those recommendations when there were still over a million fish returning, points out Assembly of First Nations regional chief Terry Teegee.

“The federal government has clearly not taken this situation seriously – this is a non-partisan issue,” Chief Teegee said in a statement. “We don’t have any more time.”

For the First Nations along the Fraser River rivershed, the loss is not just the food that many still rely upon, it’s a loss of culture and history. For recreational fisheries workers and sports fishing operators, it’s a loss of livelihood.

It’s also a loss for all British Columbians, and a harbinger of the devastation to come if we cannot manage to find a greater balance in our approach to economics and ecosystems, and prepare for the damage we have already wrought.

Dene Moore is an award-winning journalist and writer. A news editor and reporter for The Canadian Press news agency for 16 years, Moore is now a freelance journalist living in the South Cariboo. Moore’s two decades in daily journalism took her as far afield as Kandahar as a war correspondent and the Innu communities of Labrador. She has worked in newsrooms in Vancouver, Montreal, Regina, Saskatoon, St. John’s and Edmonton. She has been published in the Globe and Mail, Maclean’s magazine, the New York Times and the Toronto Star, among others. She is a Habs fan and believes this is the year.