B.C. fish futures uncertain following warm winter

Owen Bird first got into the fishing industry during high school, working at Deep Bay Auto Court and Fishing Camp on Vancouver Island in the ‘80s. In his thirty-year career in the fishing industry, he has never witnessed a winter with such low mountain snow pack. And this concerns him.

“It does seem like climate change is upon us,” Bird, now the executive director of the Sport Fishing Institute of BC, said. “If we’re now into a regime where snowpack is down to nothing and we do that for the next 10 years well then it’s a whole different story.”

The relationship between snow pack levels in the mountains and the fishing industry may seem far removed, but they are quite closely linked. Salmon in British Columbia spawn in the late summer and fall months, and rely on rivers and streams to have an adequate flow of water that is sufficiently cold. During particularly warm, dry summers, much of this cold water supply comes from the melting snow in the surrounding mountains. If this snow pack melts away early, surrounding rivers’ and streams’ water levels could drop, while temperatures soar.

Low snow pack in the mountains

As Aaron Hill, the executive director of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society succinctly puts it, “low snow pack is usually not good for salmon.”

A low snow pack is what southern B.C is experiencing this March. The River Forecast Centre, a provincial government organization that monitors and predicts B.C. river levels, recently released their snow survey and water supply bulletin for the beginning of March. Snowpack levels for the lower Fraser basin sit at 28 per cent of normal, while levels for the south coast basin are at 15 per cent of normal.

“Spring run-off and melt for any kind of local watersheds of the lower mainland are going to be lower than normal in terms of volume,” said Dave Campbell, head of the River Forecast Centre.

While Campbell said that snow melt, or lack thereof, will affect river volume as well as temperature, the fate of the rivers and ultimately the spawning salmon, will be also be heavily influenced by spring and summer weather. This does not look promising either.

Warm weather projected to continue

Campbell explained that higher water temperature off the coast of B.C. has been one of causes of the warm, dry weather this winter. This is projected to continue through to the summer, based on global circulation models.

“Right now the seasonal forecast is for warmer than average conditions,” Campbell said. “I definitely trust the seasonal forecasts that are coming out. It’s got a very high likelihood of being accurate.”

This combination of low snowpack and a warm, dry summer could have serious consequences for this fall’s salmon runs.

Projections are ‘speculative’ says DFO

Owen Bird looked up to his father growing up, which played a role in Owen’s passion for fishing. His father was a biologist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), the federal body tasked with managing Canada’s fisheries. According to DFO, it is too early to try and determine how current conditions will affect fall stream conditions.

“Salmon spawn in the fall,” DFO communication advisor, Michelle Imbeau said by email. “It would be speculative to try and determine what could happen between now and then.”

But others are looking farther ahead than the fall.

“If there’s a lot of pre-spawn mortality in this year’s pink run because of high water temperature, then two years from now it’ll [be impacted],” said Hill, from the Watershed Watch Salmon Society. “For the Sockeye, most of them are on a four year life cycle, so it depends on the species and the actual individual population that they’re from.”

Some species more at risk

This diversity in species also means that some may be more susceptible to adverse water conditions than others. Campbell said the Fraser River is so large that its water flows and temperatures are mainly driven by more northern snowpacks, which are currently sitting much closer to normal levels. It is the smaller and more local tributaries that will be most affected.

“Low mountain snowpacks … could impact other species of salmon that inhabit more coastal watersheds,” said Mike Lapointe, chief biologist at the Pacific Salmon Commission, a regulatory body run jointly by the Canadian and United States governments. “Most coho and some chinook rear in streams.”

There are still many unknowns when it comes to predicting how low snowpack levels will impact salmon runs, because fish habitats and ecosystems in general are very complex systems that are influenced by many factors. Bird remains optimistic that a wet spring and summer will make up for the lack of snow on the mountains, but he is wary of the future.

“Anyone who is watching these sorts of things is definitely concerned about this weather,” Bird said. “How exactly it’ll all unfold, I don’t know how anyone could answer that entirely.”

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