A community copes with record low salmon returns

On the Fraser River, faltering salmon populations have impacted tribes and urban economies.

  • In the southwest corner of British Columbia the Lower Fraser River flows from a canyon in Hope. The river runs along rich floodplains, through metro Vancouver, and, ultimately, into the Salish Sea.

    Michael O. Snyder
  • Brian Grandbois is a Stó:lō elder. Canada’s coastal first nations have relied on the salmon of the Fraser River for more than 10,000 years, but the fish and indigenous sovereignty are now threatened.

    Michael O. Snyder
  • Vancouver’s skyline reflects through the glass windows of a processing room at Canfisco cannery. Canneries once dominated the industry in the Vancouver metro area, with wild salmon accounting for around 60 percent of fishery profits. Salmon now account for closer to 20 percent, according to one Canfisco VP. Since then, companies like Canfisco have had to shift to multi-seasonal products like crab, halibut, groundfish and smoked varieties.

    Michael O. Snyder
  • A man sells salmon at the Granville Island Public Market in Vancouver. In 2014, commercial salmon fisheries in B.C. accounted just $74 million in revenue, compared to more than $250 million in the mid 1980’s. Despite the drop in abundance, salmon remain a crucial part of the local economy.

    Michael O. Snyder
  • A fisherman casts his line at Wellington Point Park in suburban Vancouver. Recreational fishing in the main stem and throughout tributaries of the Lower Fraser is also a significant industry in the region.

    Michael O. Snyder
  • Indigenous children play along the Tsawwassen shoreline of the delta at the mouth of the Fraser with the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal looming in the background. Shrinking habitat due to industrial development is the biggest threat to salmon survival.

    Michael O. Snyder
  • Misty MacDuffee, a biologist with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, holds up a juvenile chum salmon caught during a seining session in the marsh on the south side of Westham Island. The conservation organization is tracking the numbers and health of fry and smolts in the delta.

    Michael O. Snyder
  • Charlie Clark (left), an intern with Raincoast Conservation Foundation, uses a sein net in a marsh to capture juvenile salmon in a marsh as part of the group’s Fraser Estuary Juvenile Salmon Project.

    Michael O. Snyder
  • Steve Stark, a member of the Tsawwassen First Nation, says 20 years ago salmon nets used to be full, but now his small fleet of fishing boats targets mostly crab. Stark guides scientists on seining and data collection missions.

    Michael O. Snyder
  • Officers (left to right) Raquel Crosier, Ralph Downes and Taylor Kimball of the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife patrol for illegal fishing. Commercial fishermen often say catch limits are too restrictive, and that too many fish have been allocated for the First Nations. But declining populations of salmon have put the First Nations communities further upstream in a difficult position. The risk of arrest to catch a ceremonial fish has caused deep-seated distrust of many officials.

    Michael O. Snyder
  • For the past three years, First Nations communities and their supporters across British Columbia have worked to educate residents of the area on the challenges of restoring wild salmon in the Fraser Basin and Salish Sea corridor. The group has traveled caravan-style along the length of the river, performing ancient song, dance and salmon ceremonies.

    Michael O. Snyder
  • Audrey Siegl looks out across the water in on the shores of Crab Park, Vancouver, commercial docks at her back. Siegl joined the caravan as a member of the Musqueam First Nation.

    Michael O. Snyder

 

The Fraser River in British Columbia, Canada, is one of the most productive salmon rivers in North America. Its basin is also home to two-thirds of British Columbia’s population and a hub of economic activity, including a major port and other industries.

But now, its salmon are in decline. Last year’s salmon return was a record low, with only 853,000 fish. This year, the Pacific Salmon Commission closed the Fraser River to commercial salmon fishing, due to low forecasted returns and poor river conditions. While salmon once comprised 60 percent of fishery profits, they now account for only 20 percent of the fish caught and sold from the river.

Photographer Michael O. Snyder and journalist Courtney Sexton traveled north in 2016 to capture the stories of interwoven stakeholders in the health of the Fraser River and its fish. There they met fishermen whose jobs are in flux, learned about the varied opinions on expanding the port, and talked to First Nations people who have relied on salmon as part of their culture and sustenance for thousands of years. They also accompanied conservation teams seeking solutions to wild salmon decline.

Organizations like the Raincoast Conservation Foundation have been studying juvenile salmon populations in the estuaries where the river mixes with the Salish Sea. Their research could help untangle how young salmon activity is related to the survival of adult salmon and how to reduce impacts from future industrial projects. — Brooke Warren

Captions by Courtney Sexton

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