The death and destruction caused by this summer’s punishing heatwave and drought, and the <a href="https://watershedwatch.ca/greg-taylor-2021-salmon-forecast-amongst-widespread-closures/" target="_blank">record low salmon returns</a> that came with them, were likely just a taste of what we can expect if we don’t act fast. (File Photo)

The death and destruction caused by this summer’s punishing heatwave and drought, and the record low salmon returns that came with them, were likely just a taste of what we can expect if we don’t act fast. (File Photo)

OPINION: If we want salmon in our future, we must arrest global warming

Aaron Hill

Special to Black Press

Global warming is hitting B.C.’s salmon like a freight train. If we are going to have salmon around for our grandkids and their grandkids, we need to vote for candidates who are going to knuckle down on climate action.

Salmon are a biological marvel, a keystone species in our ecosystems, an economic driver and a cultural lynchpin for First Nations and many others. They have been evolving in North America for millions of years, expanding into their current range and adapting to the conditions in their home streams over millennia. But climate change is now unravelling the natural systems that keep freshwater and ocean habitats healthy for salmon.

Habitat loss, overfishing and other human-caused problems have been driving our salmon down for a long time. All of these threats to salmon are serious and we have to tackle them. The threat of global warming, on the other hand, is next-level. It’s existential. The death and destruction caused by this summer’s punishing heatwave and drought, and the record low salmon returns that came with them, were likely just a taste of what we can expect if we don’t act fast.

With higher temperatures, rivers and streams are warming and flow patterns are changing. When waters get too warm, migrating salmon become exhausted and have a hard time making it all the way to their spawning grounds. In smaller streams, summer low flows can leave salmon stranded and exposed to predators. Warm shallow waters often run low in oxygen, killing adult spawners as well as juveniles that rear in freshwater.

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Warming air temperatures also change rainfall and snowmelt patterns, meaning more catastrophic flooding in the winter and spring, and high dangerous waters that can be impassable for salmon.

Out in the ocean, warming waters produce less nutritious food for salmon when they already have to compete for food with mass-produced hatchery fish, and species that prey on juvenile salmon move in from southern waters. We will likely see more marine heatwaves like “the blob” that plagued the North Pacific and throttled salmon productivity in the recent past.

We know these patterns of drought, flooding and warming are only getting worse, and we know what we need to do about it to safeguard our salmon. We need to drastically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, sequester as much carbon as possible into natural ecosystems and create a clean economy. Canadians produce more greenhouse gases per capita than every other G20 country, so we have to clean up our act. And we can create lots of good new jobs in the process.

We also need to keep tackling the threats to salmon we have immediate control over. That means getting salmon farms out of the water, fishing more sustainably, using salmon hatcheries more responsibly, defending and restoring habitat, and managing our watersheds to get more cool water flowing in our rivers and streams during the summer so more salmon can make it home to spawn. These things are all totally doable, and will make an important difference, but they won’t be enough if we don’t tame the climate beast.

So if you are checking what commitments your election candidates and their parties have made to defend and rebuild B.C.’s wild salmon, make sure climate action is at the top of your checklist.

Aaron Hill is executive director of Watershed Watch Salmon Society, a science-based charity working to defend and rebuild B.C. wild salmon.

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