A direct transatlantic flight to British Columbia follows a spectacular route above Greenland, Arctic Canada and seemingly endless boreal forests before crossing the Rockies. As the plane descends over the coastal mountains, the greens get richer - some would even say emerald — and soon a shimmering blue sea comes into view. If you look more closely, you see that many rivers and streams carve their way through the rugged landscape to the fractured coastline, some abruptly over a short distance, others relentlessly over hundreds or even a thousand kilometers. You are looking at some of the best of the last, the life-giving arteries of what remains largely intact of the great wild salmon ecosystems that were once found throughout much of the northern hemisphere.
Salmon existed in France’s Dordogne region in relationship with people for at least 22,000 years, according to the dating of salmon cave drawings. When the Romans invaded the Gauls 20,000 years later, they adopted the term salmo (Gaelic for leaper) as the name for the fish they found in abundance across Northern Europe. Sadly, the water diversions of the agricultural revolution, followed by toxins and other insults from the industrial age, meant that by the mid-19th century one had to look to North America to find salmon of significant diversity and abundance. And here too things changed rapidly as commercial fishing became more efficient, the Atlantic watersheds were industrialized, and the great rivers of the American west were tamed for agriculture and power. When the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation launched its 15-year Wild Salmon Ecosystems Initiative in 2002 (grantmaking concluded in 2016), many of the watersheds of California, Oregon and Washington had been reduced to remnants of their former selves — and those to the north were showing serious stress.
Image above: Skeena River floodplain; courtesy of Adrian de Groot.
By fortunate accident, in 1981 I came to live in one of the Pacific watersheds that was doing relatively well — British Columbia’s mighty Skeena. Had I been able to find my first teaching job further south, I probably would have taken it. Instead, I agreed move to Granisle, a single-industry mining village on the wilderness shores of Lake Babine at headwaters of one of the river’s major tributaries. The day I arrived, the smell of fish carcasses filled the air as the sockeye salmon had returned to the local enhancement project in greater numbers than the spawning channels could handle. Awed by the outstanding abundance, I did not yet understand the implications of such artificial propagation on species diversity and resilience. Early on, however, I did come to understand how wild salmon were foundational to the food and culture of my Indigenous students from the Nat’oot’en (Lake Babine Nation) village of Tachet, and that this was the case for communities all along the Skeena and other coastal watersheds. Over the next two decades I fell deeper and deeper in love with the area as I explored much of the Skeena, the Stikine and the north coast of British Columbia while working as a teacher, counsellor and college director.
Such love comes with a price
The problem with moving just past the line of industrial scale development is that you get to see the demise of these wild places unfold. I found myself increasingly focused on volunteer efforts to protect the unique values of the place, whether by drawing attention to the tailings leaking from the mines at Lake Babine or challenging indiscriminate logging practices. I was shocked to learn that there had never been land use plans for the forests, and few rules that would protect streams, lake shores, and other natural assets. And, because community members across British Columbia were similarly moved to action, in the nineties the Province did make significant progress with forest practices, land-use planning and freshwater protection. However, this progress is best characterised as incremental rather than transformative, and it was insufficient to save the Skeena and similar ecosystems.
Wild Salmon Ecosystem Initiative
Around the time the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation was founded in 2000, I became aware of an initiative that promised to take conservation to a new scale in the temperate rainforests of the central and north coasts of British Columbia, including the lower Skeena. Conservation organizations, unwilling to accept the limited objectives of the British Columbia government’s land-use planning processes, had created leverage through international market campaigns and had named the area the Great Bear Rainforest. Indigenous communities, building on recent Supreme Court wins, had come together to collectively affirm their rights through an initiative called Turning Point (later Coast First Nations’ Great Bear Initiative). Consequently, the British Columbia government and forest companies had agreed to a logging moratorium for one hundred pristine temperate rainforest watersheds while more ambitious land-use plans informed by Indigenous traditional knowledge and western science were to be negotiated to protect key areas and guide an ecosystem-based approach to forestry and other development. Because of my background in regional conservation efforts and my community relationships, I was offered the opportunity to help enable successful negotiations.
It was through this work on the Great Bear Rainforest agreements that I got to know program staff with the foundation’s Wild Salmon Ecosystem Initiative. Impressed by the foundation’s pragmatic orientation and its ambition to support international conservation at the scale of the North Pacific, I accepted in 2007 a role as the Moore Foundation’s program officer focused on wild salmon ecosystems in British Columbia. Unsurprisingly, the generous contributions of Intel co-founder Gordon Moore and his wife Betty came with some intellectual strings attached. The Moores were clear that their foundation would only fund approaches that could be shown to make a measurable difference to large scale problems, and that were based on the best science.
In the case of the Wild Salmon Ecosystem Initiative, that meant rigorous analyses early on which included some tough trade-off decisions. It was determined that, rather than try to repair the damage that had been done to watersheds of the western states, the foundation would focus its attention on the more pristine watersheds of British Columbia, Alaska and the Russian far east. Financial resources would be donated to organizations working in places within these jurisdictions where the diversity and abundance of wild salmon, and the complex habitats that sustain them could be most efficiently and practically protected. In British Columbia, that meant making grants to place-based organizations focused on strengthening governance arrangements and protection designations for wild salmon ecosystems in the Great Bear Rainforest and the Skeena, Stikine and Taku watersheds. It also meant supporting broader efforts to improve provincial and federal management frameworks for fisheries, aquaculture, major project assessments and freshwater management.
Wild salmon demonstrate the linkages between habitat, species diversity and resilience. As they make their migrations from freshwater to the sea and back again, the different salmon runs evolve differently in response to the survival imperatives of the varied habitats. Which specific stocks traditionally do best varies from year-to-year but in aggregate they provide impressively consistent long-term performance. Scientists told us that, like successful financial investors, the key was to not chase the best currently performing stocks. Instead we should focus our efforts on keeping a complex mosaic of connected freshwater habitats in good shape, ensuring safe passage for wild salmon on their way to the open ocean and home again, and conducting fisheries in a manner that was sensitive to the needs of all runs.
Furthermore, wild salmon do more than look after themselves; they sustain the ecosystems that people depend on as well — and people in wild salmon watersheds truly get that. Indigenous and other wild salmon communities pay close attention to what is happening to wild salmon and are quick to work together, and with all those who are willing to support them, to ensure that wild salmon prosper. The guidance of these people, combined with evidence presented from the scientists, was all we really needed to execute an ambitious funding program. Consequently, Moore Foundation grants exceeding $100 million over fifteen years, along with donations from other funders, supported the achievement of impressive outcomes by Canadians.
In the Great Bear Rainforest, an area containing a quarter of the world’s remaining temperate rainforest, an ecosystem-based approach was developed and 85 percent of the forest was set aside from industrial logging. Through associated government-to-government agreements and conservation financing, First Nations of the area have improved capacity to ensure this approach is implemented in a manner that supports their communities and cultures over time, and to create associated businesses better aligned with their values. A sister Moore Foundation effort, the Marine Conservation Initiative, supports these same communities to achieve outcomes at a similar scale in the marine environment.
Further north, in the territories of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation, over a million acres of the Taku wild salmon ecosystem has been protected with similar collaborative governance arrangements to those in the Great Bear established and financed. In the Skeena, financial mechanisms are in place to support the ongoing capacity for monitoring and adaptive management of freshwater habitat by the Gitanyow and Wet’suwet’en First Nations.
In the Skeena estuary, a moratorium has been established to protect critical juvenile salmon habitat. In the headwaters area that the Skeena shares with the Stikine, support for the Tahltan people and their neighbors helped establish long-term protection for a sensitive area that was otherwise destined for coal and gas development. Robust civil society infrastructure is now in place to enable Skeena communities to continue to ensure their values and rights are fully considered in resource extraction decisions.
In the ocean, management challenges continue but salmon en route home to their native rivers are less likely to die as bycatch in the mixed stock commercial fishery. Those runs currently returning in less abundance are more likely to be given a pass as fisheries management, guided by the Pacific Wild Salmon Policy, has become more selective. Data around what is happening to stocks are much more readily accessible by the public.
The disease and parasitic impacts on wild salmon from open-net pen salmon farms sited on migration routes are now clear. In response, major investments in research and development around land-based aquaculture alternatives have contributed to the development of a promising new global industry to feed a hungry world without sacrificing wild stocks. While these alternatives have yet to be fully embraced in Canada, public awareness has grown to the point where provincial and federal governments have pledged to act.
Government management frameworks now have at their disposal a range of policies and processes to execute a more precautionary approach to managing salmon and their habitats. These include the direction and provisions under the Pacific Wild Salmon Policy, Fisheries Act, British Columbia Water Sustainability Act, and environmental assessment processes. Furthermore, the Canadian and Provincial governments have committed to implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) which includes the right to free, prior and informed consent in development decisions. The British Columbia government has begun the process of enshrining UNDRIP throughout its laws and policies.
While it will take sustained pressure from a civil society and engaged communities to ensure that these tools and processes are fully used, the field is stronger than it was in 2002.
Now, many millennia since that first salmon image was carved by someone in southern France, wild salmon like all global species face the greatest existential threat yet – climate change. It remains to be seen if these last-of-the-best great wild salmon systems will be there for future generations. If they endure, it will be because of their remarkable resilience and their power to align people’s behavior with conditions that allow salmon to complete their magnificent migrations. I feel fortunate to have been part of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s contributions to such honorable efforts.
Ivan Thompson is a former program officer with the Wild Salmon Ecosystem Initiative at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.