Strong public support for salmon restoration

Written By Tom Davis

But can salmon survive the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans? asks Tom Davis.

My wife and I recently attended the Pacific Salmon Foundation’s Victoria gala and auction. A few weeks later, Peninsula Streams, an important Victoria umbrella restoration group, held their 20th anniversary dinner and an online fundraiser. These events generated more than $200,000. 

The foundation and other groups show strong community support for public involvement in salmon recovery. But it’s not enough. Damaged watersheds need truckloads of cash for them to be fixed. 

Besides the work of foundations, recovery efforts are funded by private donors, non-governmental, community and business groups, as well as by all three levels of government. For example, the BC Salmon Restoration and Innovation Fund, funded jointly by the federal and provincial governments, contributed the bulk of $800,000 to provide fish access through an improperly installed culvert in Langford B.C., opening eight kilometres of previously inaccessible salmon and trout habitat. 

Poorly designed Millstream culvert. [Photo Peninsula Streams]


Millstream salmon enhancement fish ladder that provides access to the culvert. [Photo Tom Davis]

Where does the buck stop?

DFO has the principle responsibility for salmon conservation and management, however questions remain about how it’s delivering on this conservation mandate.  

Has DFO adequately protected enough salmon spawning and rearing habitat?

Does the department adequately fund and support salmon restoration groups?

Does DFO have a comprehensive salmon restoration and enhancement strategy?

Defining success

To spawn and rear successfully, salmon need abundant clean cold water – the basis for sustainable salmon runs – quality spawning habitat, and undamaged riparian zones.

Successful salmon streams require clean gravel spawning beds upwelling with oxygenated water; deep pools nearby that contain woody debris, undercut banks, rock and boulder complexes for cover, and stable food sources for salmon fry.

Riparian zones should contain plants and trees to cool stream water and reduce the risk of flash floods. Undamaged riparian areas are also needed to store, then release water during summer heat. They stabilize stream banks, supply woody debris and provide additional food sources. In return, spawning salmon replenish these zones when scavengers leave salmon carcasses and their own nutrient-rich waste on the forest floor.

A healthy riparian area. [Photo Tom Davis]

 The question now is, has DFO met these criteria? There is only one real measure of success – how many salmon runs are healthy, relative to preceding decades? 

Other comparative measurements like the state of commercial salmon fisheries, opportunities for citizens to catch salmon for personal consumption and First Nations’ rights to enough salmon to meet food, societal and ceremonial requirements support the same conclusion: DFO has not been successful. 

Public involvement key to success

Successive federal and provincial governments have known for decades which restoration prescriptions would reverse salmon declines. 

Forty-three years ago, DFO published the Stream Enhancement Guide. This booklet, and others that followed, gave individuals and groups the basic skills to participate in salmon recovery. DFO also created the community advisor position to assist the public with technical support which ensured projects followed accepted guidelines. That was former Fisheries Minister Romeo LeBlanc’s intent in the 1970s when he included public involvement in the Salmonid Enhancement Program.

In total, tens of thousands of volunteers have supported salmon and habitat recovery, including some who have been at it for nearly 50 years. Over the years, participants ranged from provincial organizations to regional umbrella groups, fishing clubs, volunteer-based hatchery societies, and community economic development programs, along with members of the fishing sector, coastal and Interior First Nations, and large research organizations like the Pacific Salmon Foundation.

Chronic underfunding

“DFO’s rural restoration unit, which looks after freshwater salmon habitat, doesn’t have two nickels to rub together,” according to BC Wildlife Federation executive director, Jesse Zeman, who cites the Salmon River as an example. 

There wasn’t enough water for adult Chinook because of siltation caused by upstream logging and low flows, he said. “The BCWF spent a few hundred dollars on burlap sacks to address siltation, because the [rural restoration unit] didn’t have any money.”

However he doesn’t blame the unit, which he said is valuable for its science capabilities, permit acquisition assistance and willingness to work with organizations like the wildlife federation.

“DFO’s rural restoration unit … doesn’t have two nickels to rub together.”

Jesse Zeman

The wildlife federation has over 43,000 members and 100 affiliated clubs in B.C. with a mission to protect fish and game resources and the public’s access to them. “The BCWF has invested millions of dollars in wetland and fish habitat restoration, with salmon projects focused on the Lower Mainland and the BC Interior,” said Zeman.

Bob Crandall, president of the Cowichan Lake Salmonid Enhancement Society, is concerned about potential cuts to DFO funding and pointed to fry-salvage as one of the most important, but under-utilized, elements of salmon recovery.

DFO may be “hesitant to get into fry-salvage because the technical sophistication and monitoring requirements cost more money,” he said. 

“[DFO is] hesitant to get into fry-salvage because … [it] cost[s] more money.” 

Bob Crandall

Crandall praised DFO’s community advisors, but recommended a job transition overlap so the new advisor can learn about regional issues with the outgoing advisor onsite.  

Cautious with criticism, grateful for support

Crandall’s remarks illustrate the conundrum many smaller groups face. They recognize DFO’s weaknesses, are cautious about criticism, but thankful for the DFO support they get.

Bob Cole is a long-time Port Alberni resident, salmon supporter and member of a group trying to rebuild Henderson River Chinook. He said DFO stopped enhancing these Chinook in 2004. This stock recovery project is supported by gill netters, seiners, Tseshaht and Hupacasath First Nation members, as well as recreational anglers, West Coast Aquatic, Omega Pacific Hatchery and the Uchucklesaht First Nation. 

Cowichan Lake fry salvage work. [Photo CLSES]

They want to use Nitinat Hatchery Chinook, reared at no cost at the private Omega Pacific Hatchery, to rebuild Henderson Chinook. There are complications, but Cole contends “DFO has blocked most of these volunteer efforts” with new excuses raised at each turn. This impasse suggests there are issues between DFO and the proponents that only DFO can resolve. 

“Support for volunteers and stream restoration has weakened over the decades.”

Ian Bruce

Peter McCully recently retired as the Howard English Hatchery’s technical advisor, capping 45 years of salmon involvement. He recommends DFO fund “cross pollination” where fish culturists periodically move between hatcheries to exchange salmon-rearing strategies. 

McCully also says DFO should introduce “common training standards for fish culturists,” similar to a successful training program used in California. The department should also develop a staff succession plan to stem the loss of accumulated experience, he said.

In 1992, Jim and Judy Ackinclose started the Fanny Bay Salmon Enhancement Society with a makeshift hatchery in their garage. Judy echoes McCully’s comments, adding that “the DFO people on the ground are great, but the higher up you go … it’s no thanks.” 

“Without coordination with the province, there will not be a long-term cohesive salmon recovery strategy.”

Ian Bruce

Ian Bruce has led the Peninsula Streams Society and dealt with senior governments for 25 years. “Support for volunteers and stream restoration has weakened over the decades, partly due to no increases for the salmon enhancement program budget,” he said. 

Bruce credits recently retired Premier John Horgan for “getting DFO involved in the BC Salmon Restoration and Innovation Fund” and predicts that “without coordination with the province, there will not be a long-term cohesive salmon recovery strategy.”

A new spawning bed on Colquitz Rver. [Photo Peninsula Streams]

The Pacific Salmon Foundation’s Victoria gala and auction raised a record $175,000 to advance their marine science program and support local conservation groups. According to the foundation’s Allison Colina, the foundation distributed $1.595 million in grants to community-led salmon conservation organizations in 2022 and would like to see “a collaborative framework that supports a coordinated action plan for salmon across BC.” 

DFO road-map for success

In May 2022, DFO released an evaluation of its activities in support of Pacific salmon. The report tracks issues with funding, support, and DFO organization challenges and is intended to create positive change in decision making and policy development. The evaluation relied heavily on questions put to DFO staff and non-government participants.

Findings revealed there is no single Pacific Salmon strategy, there is a lack of communication and collaboration between DFO’s habitat, hatchery and harvest management operations, and a lack of coordinated approach to distributing salmon restoration grant and contribution programs.

The report recommends creating a strategic vision for Pacific salmon, implementing an integrated approach, developing a grant and contribution program framework, improving internal collaboration and external partnerships, and improving financial tracking. 

Will DFO’s $647-million Pacific salmon strategic initiative address these issues?

Nearly two years have passed since its unveiling, and the most substantial financial commitment to date has been $123 million for a commercial salmon license buyback. This was portrayed as a fleet reduction plan that benefits salmon conservation, but fishing industry leaders predict minimal conservation benefits. 

It’s clear from the status of B.C.’s salmon, and the findings of the department’s own internal evaluation, that a comprehensive salmon recovery strategy is absolutely needed, while salmon and those who depend on them, can still benefit from it. 

DFO did not respond to a request for comment.