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Pacific Northwest salmon fishery

Pacific Northwest salmon catch value (US$million/year)

Value of North American salmon catch has plummeted since 1988 as a result of declining stocks and attempts to protect stocks

Source: DFO 2000b, NMFS 2000

The Pacific Northwest supports rich fishery resources, of which salmon is of primary importance. Historically abundant in many Pacific coastal and interior waters, salmon runs and species diversity have been shrinking since the late 19th century, due to dam construction (particularly in the United States), rockslides, poor management and overfishing (DFO 1999a). By the late 1980s, both countries had imposed severe restrictions on harvests of some salmon species but, despite these and other measures, by the early 1990s salmon catch and value showed significant declines; by 1999, 24 subspecies of west coast salmon had been listed under the US Endangered Species Act and Canada had closed or curtailed salmon harvests for some species in a number of its major rivers (Carlisle 1999, TU and TUC 1999).

Complicating the issue have been the two international borders that separate British Columbia's waters from Alaska's and those of the northwest United States (DFO 1999a, TU and TUC 1999). During their life cycle, salmon of US origin travel through Canada's waters and vice versa, resulting in a history of intercepting fishery practices that has encouraged unsustainable harvests (DFO 1999a). The1985 Pacific Salmon Treaty attempted to resolve this issue but broke down in 1992 because of disagreements. A 1999 amendment to the treaty based on sustaining wild stocks, sharing costs and benefits, and a common basis to assess stocks, monitor fish and evaluate performance is more promising (DFO 1999b, NOAA 1999).

The combined effects of fishing, climate change (see box) and habitat conditions have prompted a number of status reviews, renewed fishing agreements and new management approaches. For example, in 1998 Canada initiated the Pacific Fisheries Adjustment and Rebuilding Program to conserve and rebuild Pacific salmon stocks and to revitalize Pacific salmon fisheries. It has also implemented a precautionary approach to salmon management, resulting in significant harvest reductions to protect stocks at risk (DFO 1999c). In December 2000, the United States released a comprehensive, long-term federal strategy to help restore the 14 salmon subspecies in the Columbia River Basin listed on the Endangered Species Act.

As those dependent on salmon for income struggle to survive (see graph above), both countries are taking additional measures to help restore these and other wild fish stocks to the region's coastal and marine waters and to enhance and maintain global biological diversity. Recent restrictions have indeed improved the ocean survival of some important stocks but it remains to be seen if all Pacific salmon species rebound (DFO 2000a, 2001).

Impacts of climate change on Pacific salmon and other wild fish stock
Both Canada and the United States are concerned about the potential effects of climate change on salmon populations and other wild fish stocks in North America's coastal and oceanic waters. Studies by Canadian government scientists that simulated expected changes from a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere indicate that the resulting change in climate could virtually eliminate salmon habitat from the Pacific Ocean (NRC 1998). A 1994 Environment Canada study of the impact of climate change on Fraser River salmon reported that altered flow regimes, aquatic temperatures, river hydrology and seasonal run-off will intensify competition among water users in the watershed (Glavin 1996). A recent US report on climate change impacts notes that a projected narrowing in the annual water temperature range in many estuaries may cause species' ranges to shift and increase the vulnerability of some estuaries to introduced species (US GCRP 2000).