BC’s Indigenous elders say there’s no single culprit behind the decline of wild salmon

Modern salmon catches are reported to be approximately less than 17 percent of what they were estimated to be five to seven decades ago, but First Nations elders in British Columbia pointed to a number of culprits – not just salmon farms – behind the decline.

Forty-eight elders from 18 indigenous communities in the province who took part in the study, “Learning from Indigenous knowledge holders on the state and future of wild Pacific salmon,” said other factors share the blame nearly equally as salmon farms (which scored 0.15 in “weight” of the blame).

These were: climate change (0.14); contaminants (0.13); industrial development (0.12) and infectious diseases (0.11).

The study team, led by Dr Andrea Reid, an assistant professor with the Institute for the Ocean and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia, acknowledged that these findings reflect those of the seminal Cohen Commission Inquiry published on October 31, 2012.

“As noted in the Cohen Commission Inquiry Final Report, we find no single ‘smoking gun’ – no isolated cause to which these precipitous declines in salmon abundance can be attributed,” the researchers wrote.

Reid’s team conducted interviews with the aboriginal elders between June and September 2018 to understand the state and future of wild Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.) through aboriginal traditional knowledge.

The Cohen Commission had a similar, albeit a more specific line of inquiry: that of the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River. The Commission “undertook a science program, directed by our in-house fisheries research consultant, to investigate possible causes of the decline of Fraser River sockeye. Researchers knowledgeable in various fields produced 16 technical reports, 15 of which were tendered as exhibits.”

Commissioner Bruce Cohen wrote in the final report: “Some, I suspect, hoped that our work would find the ‘smoking gun’ – a single cause that explained the two-decade decline in productivity. The idea that a single event or stressor is responsible for the 1992–2009 decline in Fraser River sockeye is appealing but improbable.”

The UBC researchers underscored the importance of indigenous traditional knowledge in these types of studies because the lives of aboriginal communities are intertwined with salmon. The elders that participated in the study “have lived lives profoundly marked by salmon, spending on average more than half of a century actively engaged in salmon fishing and processing,” the researchers wrote.

Traditional knowledge of aboriginal people, said the study team, should not be viewed simply as an “afterthought” or a “gap filler” to Western scientific understanding.

“There is a need to create space for the insights, concerns, and knowledge of those that live in relationship with the land and waters, and who have inherent rights to access and steward them, to contribute to an enriched understanding and a more resilient path forward,” they said.