Fraser River Sockeye Salmon Scrutinized at Species at Risk Meeting

Sockeye salmon. Photo: NPS Photo / D. Young. 2003.

The Fraser River’s iconic sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka), was a major focus of conservation status assessments at the recent Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) that I chaired in Ottawa November 26 – December 1.

Twenty-four population groups of sockeye salmon ranging from the Bowron River group, which travels hundreds of kilometers up the Fraser River to spawn, to those in Cultus Lake, near Chilliwack, were assessed. The news was not good. Eight of the population groups were assessed as Endangered, two as Threatened, five as Special Concern, and nine as Not at Risk. These recommendations will be communicated to the federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change (ECCC) who must then decide whether or not to legally list the populations under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). Legal prohibitions to protect and recover at risk population will not occur under SARA unless the populations are listed.

The at-risk groups of sockeye salmon join other salmon populations in the Fraser River (interior coho salmon from the Thompson River drainage-Endangered) and Columbia River (Okanagan River chinook salmon-Endangered) that are signalling trouble for BC’s official provincial fishes. Of related concerns are the recent dire predictions for the famous Thompson River steelhead trout. Changing ocean conditions, degradation of freshwater habitat, by-catch in commercial fisheries, and climate change are key facors negatively impacting salmon and trout in BC.

Female Peregrine falcon. Photo: Ken Sturm/USFWS

On a more positive note, the Peregrine Falcon across most of Canada was assessed as Not at Risk after a 40 year comeback from near extirpation following the banning of DDT. The coastal BC group of Peregrine Falcon (a different subspecies) was deemed, however, to be Special Concern.

On another positive note, ECCC helped to celebrate 40 years of COSEWIC’s work with a reception on Parliament Hill. Here, ECCC Minister Catherine McKenna announced that as of the fall of 2018, her government will commit to making listing decisions in no more than 2-3 years after receiving COSEWIC’s annual reports. A loophole in SARA, as currently written, effectively imposes no deadline on the federal government to make listing decisions to add species to SARA and species may linger in legal limbo for years. This positive change was spurred on by a private member’s bill to amend SARA to impose a deadline introduced by NDP MP (South Okanagan-West Kootenay), and former Cowan Tetrapod Collection curator and COSEWIC member, Dick Cannings. Well done Dick and a great 40th birthday present for COSEWIC!

More information on COSEWIC and its recent press release can be found here.