Image: Kyler Vos
It’s no secret that wild salmon in British Columbia are nearing extinction, but why is it happening and what can we do about it? The first step is educating ourselves so we can make informed decisions about taking action. We sat down with Captain Josh Temple to discuss the complexities of the issue and learn why saving wild salmon and rehabilitating our marine environment is crucial to the future of our planet and our health.
Josh has called Clayoquot Sound home for over two decades and brings more than 25 years of experience in the marine industry as a captain, fisherman and commercial diver. He has supervised international marine operations throughout Latin America and the United States, as well as extensive domestic operations within Canada on both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Josh founded Coastal Restoration Society and Clayoquot CleanUp, organizations that operate intensive coastal rehabilitation projects in remote locations in Clayoquot Sound. Together, we’ve developed the Coastal Ambassador Program at Clayoquot Wilderness Resort to provide tangible experiences for our guests to get involved and make a difference.
First things first, let’s start with a little “Wild Salmon 101.” For someone who doesn’t know anything about the life cycle of a wild salmon, can you give us a brief overview of this fascinating cycle?
Salmon are anadromous fish, which is a fancy way of saying that they are born in freshwater but spend the majority of their life at sea. When they reach maturity, they migrate from the open ocean back to their birth river in order to spawn. It’s still very much a scientific mystery how a salmon can travel tens of thousands of miles during its lifetime and manage to find its way back to its natal watershed. The science community hypothesizes that salmon depend on a keen olfactory sense to guide them during their migration and that they are capable of discerning water molecules to a degree of one part per billion. I prefer a more romantic hypotheses that these great fish are guided by deeper rhythms that have thus far eluded explanation by the scientific community. We do know that salmon are a keystone species that connect every facet of our ecosystem from tiny micro-organisms to apex predators like Orcas, bears and humans. Salmon are woven into the very fabric of the Pacific Northwest connecting vast oceanic currents to the great temperate rainforests. Without salmon, the entire ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest would collapse.
Which species of salmon are native to Clayoquot Sound?
All five species of Pacific Salmon are indigenous to Clayoquot Sound. Chinook, Coho, Chum, Pink and Sockeye were once found in great abundance in the many rivers and streams of our region.
There have been plenty of studies carried out over the years that have shown depleted levels of salmon in Clayoquot Sound, which we are working to mitigate right here in our own backyard on the Bedwell river through our Environmental Legacy Program with the help of local heroes like Doug Palfrey of the Tofino Salmon Enhancement Society. Can you share some of the major factors that are leading to this decline in native salmon stocks?
Sadly, as a result of industrial activities like logging, commercial fishing and aquaculture, the salmon of Clayoquot Sound are facing extinction. There are myriad factors which have contributed to this decline. Overfishing by commercial boats took a heavy toll on salmon populations until the mid-1990’s when most commercial fishing was shut down due to low salmon returns. Siltation, as a result of industrial clear-out logging has suffocated spawning beds causing significant mortality during egg incubation and still goes on today. Sea-lice infestation caused in part from aquaculture activity further contributes to unsustainable juvenile salmonid mortality rates and was a major problem for outward migratory salmon in Clayoquot Sound in 2018.
What is perhaps most surprising is that marine pollution from ocean plastics and other forms of synthetic man-made materials that find their way into the waterways is causing tremendous casualties in juvenile salmon as they migrate out of Clayoquot Sound. Like many other forms of wildlife, juvenile salmon are ingesting these plastics and synthetic pollutants because they are mistaking them for food. Wildlife consumes so much pollution that it clogs their digestive tracts and they quite literally starve to death because they are eating so much plastic and pollution.
It’s impossible to point the finger at only one industry as the sole cause for the decline, but we must accept responsibility that human industrial activity has brought the salmon of Clayoquot Sound to the verge of extinction. If we expect the salmon of Clayoquot Sound to survive, then we must act now.
There is a lot of controversy surrounding aquaculture (fish farming). Can you explain what an open net pen salmon farm is and some of the issues associated with it? How many open net pen farms are currently operating in Clayoquot Sound?
There are dozens of open net pen fish farms operating in Clayoquot Sound. These sites produce both Chinook and Atlantic salmon in large mesh nets that allow seawater to pass through the rearing facility. Many resident and migratory species come into close contact with the farmed fish as a result of this open net pen method. Evidence suggests that open net pen fish farms stress the environment and pose certain risks to many species, including wild salmon.
What we have to keep in perspective is that all marine-related industries pose a risk to the environment and the resident and migratory species within it. The goal is to mitigate the impacts of all industries and to more equitably balance the relationship between economy and ecology on our coast. The aquaculture industry is an important facet of the economy in coastal British Columbia. Like any industry, the aquaculture industry has a history of less than lackluster operating procedures. I do believe that all industries which rely upon the health of the marine ecosystem have a vested interest in ensuring that their operating environment remains healthy and intact. It is in everyone’s best interest to work with the aquaculture industry to improve standards and procedures in the interest of long-term sustainability.
Alternatively, there are land based salmon farms that operate a closed loop system. Is this a more sustainable option for raising salmon? Does this method of aquaculture come with its own issues?
I think that the issue of sustainability has to be met from a very high-altitude perspective. Environmental health has to be the number one priority for obvious reasons. Without a healthy ecosystem, wildlife, First Nations, coastal communities and marine-related industries would collapse. Everything is dependent upon a healthy environment. Our focus must be on ensuring that the environment is managed with this in mind, and only then can we begin to contemplate how much impact our environment can sustain from the multitude of sources that depend upon it.
The problems pertinent to our current environmental situation stem from the fact that both industries and communities have taxed the sustainable capabilities of our environment without putting enough effort into ensuring that proper rehabilitation of the resource is prioritized. The environment is capable of sustaining a large degree of impact but we must do the rehabilitation work to ensure that impact is mitigated. For generations we have stressed the environment, but we have done very little to counter effect those impacts.
Those mistakes from our past are catching up with us. There are many industries that have the potential for more sustainable practice and procedures, and aquaculture is certainly one of them, but we have to consider the fundamental fact that moving fish farms onto land isn’t going to solve the problem of declining wild salmon populations. There are vast stretches of the British Columbia coast far removed from any influence from open net pen aquaculture that are experiencing extinction-level salmon declines. We must ask ourselves why this is the case and begin to consider deeper conclusions. Marine pollution is the one common denominator that effects wild salmon populations everywhere.
There’s also been a lot of discussion lately about the plight of our southern resident killer whales, an endangered population that has dwindled to only 74 whales. What does the decline of chinook salmon mean for our beloved orcas?
There is a lot of conflicting science in this regard but what is certainly true is that many species of wildlife depend upon wild salmon to survive. What is becoming increasingly apparent as scientific study continues is that marine pollution and ocean plastics have permeated the ecosystem to such an extent that toxic levels of these pollutants have endangered the entire food chain. Tiny micro-organisms consume and store micro-plastics and chemical pollutants, bivalves process plastics and retain them in their organs, fish of all species including salmon ingest plastics and pollutants and because these chemicals are bio-accumulants, they are passed up the food chain to predators like Orcas and humans. Plastics and pollutants have saturated every living organism on Earth. Increasing the abundance of Chinook salmon will not save the Orcas if those salmon that the Orcas are eating are full of toxic pollutants. If we are going to be successful at rehabilitating the environment and all of the species that depend upon it, we must first remove the toxic pollutants from the process. We have to look at this issue from a very fundamental perspective. The success of any rehabilitation project depends upon a clean and healthy environment first.
Did you know? 137 species depend on wild salmon including orcas, bears, bald eagles, wolves, coyotes, seals and sea lions.
You founded the Coastal Restoration Society and Clayoquot CleanUp. Can you tell us a little bit more about how these organizations differ and some of the recent projects you’ve taken on?
Clayoquot CleanUp (CCU) is our local volunteer marine rehabilitation organization that has successfully restored over 50 kilometres of shoreline within Clayoquot Sound since June 2017. I founded CCU to create a grassroots movement within our region that would work to cleanup marine pollution and help to create awareness of the ocean plastics and marine debris crisis facing our coast. Clayoquot CleanUp has successfully completed a variety of projects in 2018 including habitat rehabilitation of the Cleland Island Ecological Reserve, Intertidal Salmonid Migratory Corridor Remediation, and Wildlife Habitat Rehabilitation on Flores and Vargas Islands. All of these projects aim to rehabilitate the marine environment for the benefit of wildlife and humanity in Clayoquot Sound.
I founded Coastal Restoration Society (CRS) to grow the work of Clayoquot CleanUp to a larger, more industrial scale and to take the marine pollution remediation movement beyond the borders of Clayoquot Sound. CRS works with marine-related industry partners, First Nations and Municipal, Provincial and Federal Governments to perform large-scale marine rehabilitation projects that achieve a more equitable balance between ecology and economy in the marine environment. CRS also performs aquaculture site deconstruction and emergency spill response to support marine industry operators. CRS’ next project here in Clayoquot Sound is the Ahousaht Community and Harbour Enhancement project focusing on salmon habitat rehabilitation and the removal of derelict vehicles, equipment and vessels in traditional Ahousaht First Nation territory. Over the next two years CRS will complete substantial salmon habitat rehabilitation projects aimed at restoring salmon populations to once-historic levels in Clayoquot Sound.
So, as conscience consumers and citizens, what can we do? How do we make a difference?
There are two important things that we can do as individuals to help reverse the damage that has been done, and ensure that it never reaches this level of degeneration again:
- Take part in the Coastal Ambassador program and reduce your reliance on single-use plastics or petroleum-based products that leech toxins into our environment. If we stop relying on these products and make conscious decisions as individuals to stop buying them, then there will be an immediate and long-term reduction to the amount of toxins that reach the marine environment.
- Continue to educate yourself and keep the conversation going. Support the work that organizations like Coastal Restoration Society, Clayoquot CleanUp, Tofino Salmon Enhancement Society*, and OceanWise are doing to mitigate the historical damage done to our environment by industrial activity and toxic products. The government is doing almost nothing to rehabilitate the marine environment. It is up to us to support the organizations that are taking action and working to save the ecosystem for the benefit of us all.
Josh, thank you for taking the time to chat with us. We are proud to partner with you and grateful for all the hard work that you and your teams do to keep Clayoquot Sound healthy for future generations!
To learn more about Clayoquot Wilderness Resort’s Environmental Legacy Program, visit https://wildretreat.com/environment/environmental-legacy-program/
*For more information about the Tofino Salmon Enhancement Society, call 250-725-2376