Atlantic vs. Pacific Salmon: A Discussion of Regional Issues

The 2009 Go Wild Expedition is focusing our attention is on the British Columbia coast, north of Vancouver Island. I believe that the salmon stocks in Alaska, while impacted in many ways, are not under as imminent a threat as pink and chum salmon in the Broughton Archipelago.

From my understanding, the wild Atlantic salmon fishery has been commercially dead for almost two decades due to the cumulative effects of two centuries of habitat destruction and overfishing. In 2008 they were able to measure quite exactly the number of spawning salmon returning to Maine rivers, and it was extremely low….one to two thousand fish in some rivers.

Similarly in the Pacific as in the Atlantic, mining, splash dams, clear cutting, massive hydroelectric projects, overfishing, ineffective hatchery policies, and other forms of habitat degradation have eaten away at salmon populations since Europeans took hold two hundred years ago.

That said, the situation in the Pacific is different in many ways. For one, the wild Pacific Salmon population is comprised of several species of salmon: pink, chum, sockeye, coho, and chinook. Each species has different spawning territories and habits as juveniles, which means that overall salmon have a better chance of surviving even if a particular species is all but destroyed.

Pink and chum salmon return to the ocean shortly after hatching, and the tiny juveniles are very susceptible to parasitic infection. If salmon farming practices in the area do not change, we expect that pink and chum salmon will be locally extinct in the Broughton archipelago and surrounding areas within 4 years. Pink and chum salmon are generally the most common salmon species in the Pacific. For those species, the situation on the British Columbia coast is as bad or worse than in Maine.

However, coho and sockeye spend the first several years of their lives in freshwater, meaning that when they migrate to sea through the lice-infested farm areas, they are much larger and less at risk from parasitic infection. Accordingly, this issue does not have the same devastating effects on the coho and sockeye.

As Aldo Leopold said, “The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the pieces.”

Though some salmon species may survive, and pink and chum salmon stocks may persist in areas not heavily saturated by fish farms, the imminent loss of genetic diversity among these fish is, in my opinion, completely unacceptable and tragically avoidable.

To save the salmon might require dramatic change in culture and worldview, but there are some things you can do to help. Know where your food comes from, and support sustainable fisheries. Check out www.seachoice.org and www.montereybayaquarium.org for help on making those choices. There is also a new iPhone application. Free to download, this application will allow you to easily make seafood choices on the go!

Also, consider the impact of your actions. One person can make a huge difference, as with Andy Batcho. He decided to put together a plan to restore a local stream, and has successfully brought back a modest salmon run near his home in Seattle where none existed for many years.

Recycle. Get your friends to recycle. And Go wild!!

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