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WATER WISE: Can wildlife adapt to the current rate of climate change?

Historic approach to land and water management is inadequate

Tanis Gower

Special to The Record

At the peak of the late June heatwave, I was sitting at my desk when a deer walked past my window, its mouth open, panting in the heat. I felt a pang of guilt thinking of all the wild creatures that could not escape the heat like I could. In a futile but well-meaning gesture, I ran to put out a pail of water.

Returning to my desk, I thought of the juvenile salmon I’d seen at my local swimming hole a day earlier. They seemed fine then, but how much hotter was the river now? How hot and how low would the river be in August? Salmon need abundant cool water. They simply die if their waters are too warm.

Animals and plants evolve in response to their environment, but the current rate of change is at least 10 times greater than any climate shift in the past 65 million years. The geographic range of some species will change, while others may not survive at all. Given the changes to water temperature and flows, there will likely be fewer salmon rivers in B.C.

Behaviour change is one way animals adapt to rising temperatures. For example, newly hatched pink salmon have been documented migrating to the ocean earlier in the spring. This offers hope that some salmon runs will find ways to persist. However, the species that spend summers in freshwater, like chinook, coho and steelhead, cannot easily escape rising stream temperatures and low flows. They are genetically programmed to grow in freshwater for months to years, depending on the unique characteristics of each stock and species.

Salmon have been declining since European colonization – a 2008 estimate put southern British Columbia populations at less than 10 per cent of what they once were. In June 2021, Fisheries and Oceans Canada announced that nearly 60 per cent of B.C.’s commercial salmon fisheries would be closed to prevent the collapse of these stocks. While shocking, this decision was needed because climate change, overfishing and habitat degradation were taking too great a toll.

Some freshwater salmon habitats are gone forever, and much of what remains has been damaged by logging, water extraction, polluted runoff, dams, and human development. We know from experience that salmon have the capacity to recover. We also know that protecting and restoring freshwater habitats is a non-negotiable component of any salmon recovery effort. Many of the harms we have caused are at least partially reversible, but procrastination, climate change, and population growth are making the necessary changes ever more urgent and challenging.

The Province of B.C. has made strong public commitments to protect and improve watershed health. The foundation for these commitments is the 2016 Water Sustainability Act, which provides a much-needed framework for better water management. New opportunities under this law include watershed-scale planning for land and water uses, co-governance with First Nations, and the ability to set minimum instream flows to sustain aquatic life. Yet five years on, implementation has barely begun. Provincial efforts are tiny and piecemeal compared to the challenge.

Our historic approach to land and water management has proven wholly inadequate. The first steps towards something more holistic and integrated might be happening now, with the province focusing on reconciliation and co-governance with First Nations, and with promises of a Watershed Security Strategy and Fund. To make things better, everyone needs to participate, including civil society and all four levels of government: local, provincial, federal and First Nations.

Salmon have been evolving for at least the last seven million years, increasing their range and adapting to the specific conditions of their home streams. They are renowned for their resilience, but they need our help now. If we want salmon in our future, it is time to get serious about protecting and restoring our fresh waters.

Tanis Gower is a restoration ecologist and biologist with 25 years’ experience working as a consultant, for government and in the nonprofit sector. She is a science and policy advisor for Watershed Watch Salmon Society.