Sierra Club of Canada’s Wild Salmon Strategy Calls for Major Federal Policy Overhaul

Sierra Club of Canada


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OTTAWA—Today Sierra Club of Canada and its B.C. Chapter released a major report calling for a complete overhaul of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s wild salmon mandate and policy on Canada’s West coast.

The report proposes a major rededication of the federal government’s constitutional authority over west coast salmon runs. It also aims to help break a three-year deadlock that has both severely hampered the fisheries department’s efforts to conserve salmon and fostered deep divisions among British Columbians.

"Ottawa’s neglect of the situation is eroding public confidence in the federal government’s concern for British Columbian values," says Terry Glavin, Advisor to Sierra Club of Canada’s B.C. Chapter and author of the report.

"Fisheries and Oceans Canada remains locked in a conflict of interest over competing objectives for B.C.’s wild salmon," Glavin said. "It’s a conflict between outmoded industrial management goals and British Columbians’ expectations that the diversity of salmon runs will be protected. We’re proposing a way out of this mess."

The federal government’s own attempts to articulate a "wild salmon policy" for Canada’s west coast collapsed in 1999 after advice from departmental scientists was ignored and a draft policy resoundingly rejected by conservationists, scientists, and the public.

Sierra Club of Canada’s report calls on the federal government to adopt policies that emphasize stock-specific harvests over dangerous mixed-stock fisheries. It also stresses cooperative, transparent, community-based efforts are needed to conserve the nearly 10,000 salmon runs so vital to B.C.’s ecological health.

"Commercial and sports fishermen deserve certainty around the future of the industry," noted Sierra Club of Canada Executive Director Elizabeth May. "But First Nations are also constitutionally entitled to continue their ancient relationships with specific salmon runs, and the public deserves to have salmon protected throughout B.C."

Federal fisheries policy continues to ignore Pacific salmon’s role as "keystone species" upon which a myriad of terrestrial species depend—from wolves to bears, eagles, and ravens. Ottawa still doesn’t understand that salmon are also "keystone species" in B.C.’s cultural consciousness, and contribute to British Columbians’ distinct identity and pride of place.
Among the report’s findings:

  • British Columbians overwhelmingly support conserving salmon runs, even if it means severely restraining fisheries, slowing economic development, and paying higher taxes.

  • Most British Columbians identify salmon’s contributions to ecological health, community values, and the natural beauty of British Columbia as being far more important than commercial value.

  • The story of salmon in British Columbia is not simply a story of persistent decline; many runs are recovering from years of over fishing.

  • Senior Fisheries and Oceans Canada personnel are critically hampered by the absence of a clear, publicly supported, scientifically defensible salmon conservation mandate.

  • The public must be given a far greater role in directing federal conservation efforts, from habitat protection initiatives to fisheries management decisions.

"The absence of clear federal policy on salmon conservation is the root of most of B.C.’s chronic disputes over aboriginal fishing rights, the continuing decline of small salmon runs to endangered species status, and rancorous disputes between commercial fishermen and conservationists," added Ken Wilson, Science Advisor for Sierra Club of Canada’s B.C. Chapter.

Instead of causing divisions among British Columbians, the federal government should show leadership by uniting British Columbians around the common objective of conserving the diversity and abundance of salmon runs, the report concludes.

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For more information, contact:
Sierra Club of Canada: (613) 241-4611
Sierra Club of Canada, BC Chapter: (250) 386-5255, ext. 202

Protecting the Public Interest in the Conservation of Wild Salmon in British Columbia - A Strategy for the Conservation of Pacific Salmon, is available here(pdf format, 1MB)

A Strategy for the Conservation of Wild Pacific Salmon - Background Summary

In 1999, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) began developing a draft policy on the conservation of Pacific salmon. The proposed "Wild Salmon Policy" (WSP) involved an intensive effort by DFO salmon scientists, policy analysts and fisheries managers to come to terms with their "conservation" mandate. On March 15, 2000, DFO released the proposal in the form of a public discussion paper.

The draft WSP document was ultimately severely compromised within the DFO bureaucracy. The original document stressed the need to conserve salmon by protecting "the greatest diversity of local populations, and their historic range." It acknowledged the need to ensure against "the extirpation or extinction of local populations," and proposed that wild salmon be afforded a clear, unequivocal priority over all other production objectives, including hatcheries and aquaculture.

However, the final draft policy asserted that wild salmon would be afforded some priority over hatchery production and aquaculture, but the priority would apply only to salmon runs so badly damaged that their genetic diversity and long-term viability was at stake. While the need to conserve the "diversity of local populations and their habitats" was acknowledged, the proposed policy confined DFO’s conservation obligations only to broad "conservation units" of salmon.

Conservationists and salmon scientists responded to the public discussion paper quickly and negatively. The document was almost universally condemned as a surrendering by the federal government in the face of a crucial policy challenge. The proposed policy was seen as an abdication of the federal government’s duty to conserve salmon, and as an instrument that would simply entrench DFO’s worst practices, and probably place wild salmon at even greater risk.

Similar conclusions were reached in a May 2000 analysis prepared by the Pacific Fisheries Resource Conservation Council (PFRCC), a body the federal government established in 1998 to provide governments and the public with long-term strategic advice on matters related to salmon conservation.

The PFRCC, whose members were appointed by the federal fisheries minister, found that the proposed wild salmon policy had been "rewritten and compromised" by senior DFO officials before its public release. Also the PFRCC concluded that the DFO’s proposed approach to salmon conservation was actually "likely to put wild salmon at risk."

Fisheries and Oceans was forced to "go back to the drawing board," however that's where its efforts remain.

Articulating a Vision for an Effective BC Wild Salmon Strategy:

In response to this continuing policy vacuum, the Sierra Club of B.C., in consultation with several senior Fisheries and Oceans scientists and key independent salmon biologists on Canada's west coast, set about the work of developing a broad policy framework for the conservation of Pacific salmon.

The result is this report, "Protecting the Public Interest in the Conservation of Salmon in British Columbia: A Strategy for the Conservation of Pacific Salmon." With this report, the Sierra Club of British Columbia has produced the first modern strategic overview of wild salmon in the province: historical and social, ecological and economic. This study has been done in hopes of catalyzing broad strategic initiatives by the federal government and other responsible parties.

Findings of the SCBC Wild Salmon Strategy Report:

  1. An overwhelming majority of British Columbians understand that salmon are worth far more to society, to local landscapes and to ecological functioning, than their mere commercial value.
    Salmon have come to play an irreplaceable role in the British Columbian identity and in our pride of place. While still economically significant to some coastal communities, salmon are no longer of any direct consequence to the provincial wage economy. Salmon conservation has become a deeply held social and cultural concern of British Columbians. It is the concern of specific communities for specific salmon runs, and it is also an across-the-board priority for British Columbians, wherever they live.

  2. While salmon depend upon healthy terrestrial ecosystems, the converse is also true: the health of terrestrial ecosystems often relies heavily upon salmon.
    Dozens of species, from sculpins to grizzly bears, directly rely upon the wide dispersal of salmon throughout the landscape. The famous productivity of much of B.C.’s terrestrial ecosystems can be understood, in large measure, as a consequence of the presence of salmon.

  3. The recent history of B.C.’s salmon runs is not simply a story of persistent decline.
    Dozens of B.C.’s salmon runs have become biologically extinct, and hundreds of others have been rendered commercially extinct and persist only in remnants. However, salmon runs can exhibit dramatic recoveries following years of over-fishing and habitat loss. Also, throughout their range, salmon fluctuate in abundance over time, in step with broad-scale environmental forces.

  4. Technological approaches to the challenge of salmon conservation have consistently failed to live up to their promises.
    Hatchery production has been shown to result in the genetic dilution of locally adapted wild strains, and fishing pressure attracted by hatcheries has resulted in over-fishing of nearby wild salmon runs. Yet hatcheries persist as a government spending priority. These spending priorities persist, even though hatchery fish have displaced wild fish, spawning channels have replaced natural spawning habitat and ecological functioning has been seriously disrupted throughout B.C.

  5. The greatest challenge facing the relationship between people and salmon at the beginning of the 21st century is the persistence of outmoded government policies.
    These policies are relics of the past and do not accord with the changing conditions that salmon are encountering in the post-industrial era. Government policy ignores the scientific understanding of the conditions necessary for salmon conservation, and, most importantly, government policy is completely out of step with changed public values in B.C.

  6. A continuing, chronic dysfunction besets Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
    At its heart is a deeply rooted conflict between the public interest in salmon conservation and FOC’s institutional interest in resource extraction and production. FOC officials routinely demonstrate an inability to reconcile their public duty to protect salmon with FOC’s obligations to industry and others. The federal government’s emphasis on hatcheries and its heavy subsidies to salmon aquaculture are evidence of this. Of seven different "management objectives" FOC identifies for salmon fisheries, only one identifies objectives under a general heading of "conservation/sustainability."

The Way Forward:

Salmon are involved in ancient and specific relationships with aboriginal communities. Salmon are rightly subject to the legally enforceable fishing rights of B.C.’s First Nations, and aboriginal communities are rightly afforded priority in the allocation of harvestable surpluses of salmon. Salmon remain a Crown-owned resource. Salmon do not belong to the government or to industry. They belong to all Canadians, and all British Columbians, to generations long dead and generations unborn. Our duty to conserve salmon is a duty to generations of Canadians to come.

For these reasons, Fisheries and Oceans Canada must be reformed to ensure that the federal authority over salmon and salmon habitat places the public interest in salmon conservation before all other "stakeholder" interests. The public will to conserve salmon must take precedence over the imperatives of outmoded economic measurements and institutional convenience.

If salmon are to persist as a key feature of the B.C. landscape through the 21st century, a healthy relationship between people and salmon must be allowed to grow and flourish. Conservation must be truly paramount, and B.C.’s economic, social and cultural values for salmon must directly inform government policy. A wholly new vision must guide government decision making on salmon conservation, one that ensures that all production objectives are subsidiary to the importance of salmon as a keystone species upon which B.C.’s environmental health so deeply depends and to the importance of salmon in B.C.’s cultural consciousness.


  1. The conservation of B.C.’s salmon populations must take precedence over all other objectives for salmon production, and salmon populations must be conserved, in the greatest biological and genetic diversity and abundance, for their intrinsic values.
    These values are not exclusively and directly economic in nature. In keeping with the purposes of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, the diversity and abundance of B.C.’s salmon populations must be maintained for ecological, genetic, social, scientific, educational, cultural, recreational and aesthetic values.

  2. The federal government, through FOC, must commit itself to protecting and maintaining salmon habitat on an ecosystem basis.
    The federal and provincial governments should assume joint responsibility for protecting the health of the ecosystems upon which salmon depend.

  3. Federal fisheries-management and fisheries-habitat policies must take into account the role salmon play in ecosystem functioning.
    Salmon must be conserved to ensure the diversity and abundance of myriad aquatic and terrestrial species depend upon the diversity and abundance of salmon across the broadest possible range.

  4. The federal government must commit itself to a precautionary approach in its decision-making, and must always make efforts to regulate fisheries and protect salmon habitat in a risk-averse manner.
    This will mean ensuring that, at a minimum, fisheries are managed so that their impacts upon salmon runs are predictable and sustainable and the genetic integrity of salmon populations is protected. It will also mean that, at a minimum, habitat is protected in ways that allow gene flow between fragmented populations. Similarly, safeguards must be established to ensure that hatcheries and other enhancement or production initiatives, including aquaculture, pose no threat of adverse impacts upon wild salmon populations.


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