Traditional Salmon Fisheries and Sustainable Development on Canada's Pacific Coast

pp. 77-90 in Traditional Technology for Environmental Conservation and Sustainable Development in the Asian-Pacific Region

Proceedings of the UNESCO - University of Tsukuba International Seminar on Traditional Technology for Environmental Conservation and Sustainable Development in the Asian-Pacific Region, held in Tsukuba Science City, Japan, 11-14 December, 1995.

Editors: Kozo Ishizuka, D. Sc. , Shigeru Hisajima, D. Sc. , Darryl R.J. Macer, Ph.D.

Copyright 1996 Masters Program in Environmental Sciences, University of Tsukuba. Commercial rights are reserved, but this book may be reproduced for limited educational purposes. Published by the Master's Program in Environmental Science and Master's Program in Biosystem Studies, University of Tsukuba, 1996.

Carey D. McAllister
Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Pacific Biological Station, Nanaimo, BC, CANADA V9T 1K2


Current issues in salmon fisheries on Canada's Pacific coast are discussed, with a summary of the life history of salmon and the fisheries upon them. Factors perpetuating intense stakeholder conflict, and changes needed for resolution of conflict are discussed, with emphasis on aboriginal interests.


The following summarizes some core aspects of salmon fisheries on Canada's Pacific Coast; identifies elements of the present day socio-economic climate in which the fisheries exist; and attempts to lay out questions requiring solution before fisheries Nirvana can be even defined, let alone achieved.

Newspaper headlines suggest that traditional fishers, environmental conservation, and sustainable development provide issues that are alive, if not well, in Canada's Pacific region. Aboriginal leaders decry racism and the continuation of a long history of social abuse and economic deprivation. Angry groups of disadvantaged aboriginals threaten blockades against activities impinging on their perceived lands and resources, at times against the advice of their leaders. Organizations of commercial fishers blame aboriginal fishers for the allegedly impending death of the salmon resource, at times using illegal protest fisheries. Recreational fishers heavily criticize both aboriginal and commercial fishers for impairing their sport, or the industry supported by it. Searing controversies and public hearings on proposals for major river diversions consume corporate funds and exhaust citizen energies, but may help to enrich law firms. Attempts to reduce forest harvest rates to sustainable levels and reduce impacts on salmon spawning rivers generate yet other headlines, and also mass rallies by loggers made to feel afraid for their jobs. Chat with a stranger and find a controversy.

In the news media, fear and anger stalk the headlines, and inflame letters to the editor. However, the media's selection of headlines, news articles, and letters to the editor at times seems more calculated to sell newspapers than to inform the public. Government, perhaps feeling trapped amongst warring factions of voters or potential campaign contributors, is exercising little publically visible leadership. Indeed the public perceptions are so diverse, that current standards of political leadership may be even more grossly inadequate than usual.

One of the root questions must be, "What national or regional purpose should salmon fisheries, and the environments sustaining them serve?" From whose perspective should the objectives be defined? What are the aspirations of the various stakeholders?


The most obvious stakeholders in the salmon resource are aboriginal, recreational, and commercial fishers or business entities with direct interests in the salmon fishery. Another category might be competing users of fish habitat, such as land developers of various sorts, users of water ranging from those with need for water storage to entities using waterways for effluent discharge; and such industries as forestry whose activities can have many types of direct and indirect impact on salmon bearing rivers. A significant and often neglected stakeholder is the general public, in Canada the owners of the salmon resource, as represented by the federal government, and its Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

The Public Interest

Shaped in part by government educational & information programs about the salmon resource, the public has what might be called an affectionate and perhaps romantic regard for the salmon resource. The salmon themselves deserve some credit for this, with their dramatic life history, including the travels of finger-long fish from the gravel of small streams to distant ocean rearing areas and back again as adults, often battling the tremendous forces of long powerful rivers, perhaps even having to leap waterfalls. Classes of school children may adopt small salmon streams. Some surveys have suggested that even the many who do not participate in commercial or recreational fisheries place a high value on the maintenance of the salmon resource and the habitats which sustain it. There may be concerns about the potential impacts of oil spills, other pollution, dam construction, and forest harvesting on salmon ecology and yields. The strength of these concerns may vary with the state of the economy and employment levels. When employment is high and business is good, environmental concern is prominent in all sectors of the public. If unemployment is high, and conventional business rhetoric implies that environmental conservation threatens further job cuts, environmental concerns in the labour force may weaken.

Nonetheless, the aspirations of the general public are probably in favour of continued restoration of salmon runs, against further losses of salmon stocks, and in favour of conserving salmon habitat. Accompanying these positions are fears of aboriginal land claims, now at last being actively, if slowly, pursued. The fears are based in part on sensationalist media reports which identify the simple fact that before contact, the whole region was "owned" by aboriginals, that most aboriginal groups have not surrendered their territories in either war or negotiations, and that aboriginals are now seeking redress. The media do not give the same prominence to statements by aboriginal leadership to the effect that fisheries access, home, land, or business ownership by non-natives are not threatened by aboriginal aspirations. The non-native fears may be worsened by blockades or other acts by militant aboriginals dissatisfied with the progress of negotiations for regress, continued alienation of lands that they claim, perceptions of accelerated use of natural resources in order to thwart claims, plus continued racism and discrimination.

The perceptions of racist discrimination are to a degree true. However, an accompanying problem is the communications gap between the leadership and disadvantaged aboriginals. This gap is very similar to the enormous gap between non-aboriginal intellectuals or educated experts and the large numbers of ill- educated white persons in Canada. As a result of both implicit and explicit government policies of the past, this socio-educational gap may be deeper amongst aboriginals than in the dominant majority. The fact that the gap is common to both sets of races is often disregarded by those seeking to justify essentially racist positions, or those attempting to justify economic actions which continue to discriminate against aboriginal interests. While the aboriginal education gap must be must be acknowledged and remedied, it must also be acknowledged that it results from over 100 years of actively pursued discrimination and racism, not from any inherent racial inabilities.

Aboriginal Aspirations

Aboriginal aspirations for use of the salmon resource must be viewed in a context of broader issues and aspirations. In the longer term view it must be recognized that aboriginal access to not only the salmon resource but all resources including land has been severely restricted by direct preemption. In addition, it might be interpreted that education for aboriginals was used as a weapon designed to destroy their culture and self confidence, and hence their capability to control, guide, or even to participate fairly in the "European-style" development of the fishery or indeed any of the natural resources. Further, it would seem that both policy and practice have had the effect of barring aboriginals from adequately sharing in the economic and social benefits of development - quite apart from shaping it. Further still, from the often tiny enclaves to which government sought to restrict them, they have watched major changes in the salmon resource, as well as the health of other fisheries, the forests, other natural resources, and the land base itself.

For a host of reasons, none of them reflecting well on the dominant majorities, aboriginals have lower education levels, much higher unemployment, lower wages amongst those who are employed, higher rates of substance and other abuses, and much higher suicide rates than the dominant majority. These ills have begun to change - in fairness in part to changes in policy, and to the beginnings of change in attitudes of the dominant majority. However, many aboriginal aspirations focus on coping with these often extreme examples of social and economic ills. As noted elsewhere here, the causes of the ills include the denigration of their culture and direct & indirect denial of access to the resources which previously sustained the culture. Thus an aspiration is to improve access to the use of resources formerly sustaining both body and spirit, including the salmon resource, both as intrinsic issues and for broader reasons.

Aboriginal stakeholders have, up until quite recently, been legally entitled to a so-called "Indian Food Fishery" for salmon. For the Indian Food Fishery, the Canada Department of Fisheries would estimate or negotiate the numbers of fish which a First Nation entitled to, based on nutritional needs, conservation requirements, and perhaps historical precedent. The salmon might be captured in river systems using traditional methods, or at sea with technologies ranging up to the most modern.

Statutes provide that after stock conservation needs are met, the aboriginal food fishery needs have priority, followed by commercial and recreational harvests. In practice, until quite recently, the aboriginal food fishery, which tended to occur upstream of many of the commercial and recreational harvests had in effect the lowest priority. If commercial plus recreational catches to seaward were too high, the food fishery was reduced accordingly, with the First Nations farthest upriver in large systems being the most deprived. In recent extreme cases, where upriver salmon were too few to meet needs, the government has purchased salmon elsewhere, and made the available to the affected groups.

Present Aboriginal aspirations regarding the salmon resource are derived in part from their perspective that the resource "belonged" to them prior to European colonization. In addition, aboriginals are now regaining a strong sense of the rich and complex culture which they had developed, based to a large extent on the abundance of salmon, before colonization.

There is an increasing consciousness that a combination of government policies, essentially racist attitudes, and aggressive colonial entrepreneurism severely reduced their access to the salmon resource, indeed to all the resources that formerly supported them. The fact is that the European colonists and their successors made long term efforts to eradicate the rich and complex aboriginal culture. The concepts and practices governing their access to and use of the resources were also set aside. The fact is that the Europeans and others becoming the dominant majority of Canadians sought to confine aboriginals to small portions of the vast land they once used, and even to dictate their use of the tiny reserves allotted to them. In little more than 100 years, certainly less than 200 years, aboriginal access to salmon, and land was alienated in the name of "civilization." The social attitudes which allowed these major "thefts" to occur are still widespread today, although perhaps decreasing in extent. They are not restricted to Canadians of European origin. The essentially racist attitudes are also held by many Canadians of Asian and other origins too.

However, Aboriginal leaders declare that it is not their objective to turn the clock back to pre-contact conditions. They acknowledge that the use of the salmon and other resources by others will continue. They do declare that aboriginal access to and use of the salmon resource should be at least partially restored and further guaranteed in law. They increasingly insist that the seaward fisheries be managed in a way that honours the legal commitment to placing aboriginal needs first amongst all other stakeholders, after conservation needs are met. There is reason to believe that they insist that the recent judicial recognition of aboriginal "ceremonial and cultural needs" should be interpreted to recognize the ancient traditional trade in salmon and thus include present day sales of salmon, distinct from other commercial catches.

Accounts by aboriginal elders, records of European fur traders & explorers, and early photographs inform us that catches of salmon in the rivers could be large, and that elaborate schemes for processing and storing catches for later use were well developed. Such technology was essential, as the greatest abundance of salmon was highly seasonal and brief. Catching and processing were well enough developed to support trade in salmon.

After European colonization, salmon harvesting increased, and supported additional trade often in dried or salted salmon. Near the turn of the century the salmon fishery became "industrialized", with increasing numbers of non- aboriginal fishers, and the construction of many canneries. These events, coupled with government actions such as restricting aboriginals to small parcels of land termed "Reserves', outlawing key cultural practices, and enforcing discriminatory education policies marginalized aboriginals. Because of this geographic, cultural, educational, and economic marginalization, aboriginal access to the resources that had supported them so richly was severely reduced - thus the statutory food fishery. From riches to statutory poverty in less than three generations.

Recreational Aspirations

These may range from the avowedly pure to the crass. Recreational stakeholders include both individual sport fishers and businesses reliant on them - the makers and sellers of boats, gear, and equipment; and resorts, charter boat operators, and guides. The economic value of the recreational fishery is high, though the total salmon catch is much less than by the commercial fleet, and the species composition differs too. Increasingly, charter boat/resort operators target stocks of salmon formerly almost untouched by sport fishers. They may do so in areas with strong aboriginal interests. The individual sport fisher aspires to catch salmon. The related businesses aspire to make money. Both have a strong sense of competition with the commercial fleet, and with aboriginal stakeholders. The recreational fisheries organizations often try to point out that a single fish caught recreationally contributes much more to the economy that a commercially caught fish. The possibility that the money spent on the salmon sport fishery would in all likelihood still enter the economy by other routes even if the sport fishery was abolished is rarely admitted. Nor is the fact that the sport fishers are unlikely to be able to harvest the numbers of salmon even presently available. Recreational aspirations have been acknowledged to some degree in limitations on the commercial fishery in some coastal seaways. If the recreational catches of Chinook and Coho salmon are low, the sport groups are often quick to blame the commercial fishery, sometimes with untenable rhetoric.

In general, the recreational fishers and related businesses aspire to maintain and increase sport catches of salmon. In attempting to further such aspirations, they cannot avoid threatening to reduce the availability of Chinook, Coho, and some stocks of sockeye salmon to other stakeholders.

Within the general recreational aspiration may be others. Some wish to catch salmon, lots of them, for food consumption. They may freeze, can, or smoke considerable quantities of salmon, sometimes resembling miniature commercial operations. Some of this type of "sport fisher" have come to feel that it is their inalienable right to capture as much salmon as they need to keep their purchases of meat at a low level. Such persons may be amongst the most vocal of the sports group in opposing aboriginal food fisheries for salmon.

Commercial Aspirations

The commercial sector includes fishermen earning a living as boat owners or crew, as well as salmon catch processing businesses. Some aboriginals participate as commercial fisherman, but access is difficult for many. There may be an increasing tendency for fishermen-boat owners to act as small companies seeking to maintain or increase the returns on their considerable investments, as opposed to simply earning a good living. There is intense competition within and between commercial gear types - gillnet fishermen vs. hook & line fishermen vs. purse seine fishermen. With increases in catching power, investment levels by individuals, and competition, management of the salmon fishery intensifies and becomes more restrictive. This has led to increased diversification in the fishing fleet. For instance, fishermen formerly relying on trolling with hook and line for salmon, may now enter the roe herring fishery, and may also target halibut.

Fish processing companies have ranged from small local firms through large enterprises with interests mainly in the fishing industry, to subsidiaries of larger diversified conglomerates driven by the objectives of remote shareholders as translated by boards of directors with short term aspirations for fast profits. The aspirations of such businesses have profit in common. However, the more remote the ownership, and the more diverse the parent company, the less a sense of resource stewardship is to be expected.

For some fishers, the way of life is a strong motivating force. For others, making a lot of money is a driver. For others the hope of making a lot of money matters, even if they never do so. For the processor, return on investment may be the motive. For the diversified multinational, the aspirations may be somewhat more complex. Overall profitability of the conglomerate may be the motive. However, it is conceivable that in some cases this could entail hoping for losses and thus tax advantages in some of the components of the conglomerate. Or, a conglomerate with interests in the fishing industry and also an industry which pollutes salmon habitat, faces internal conflicts. The corporate perspective on the conflict may be dictated by stock market or shareholder concerns rather than a sense of resource husbandry or concern for the salmon, and communities which may rely on it.

Amongst the fishers themselves, a sense of fear intensifies the already intense competitiveness of the salmon fishery. The fear focuses on other commercial fishers, on the sports fishery, on fish farming, on the effects of foreign salmon fisheries on prices for Canadian salmon, and on the increasing presence of aboriginals as a force in the salmon fishery. The latter aspect may receive a disproportionate focus, and lead to rather extreme views which seem to disregard other major issues or threats. Their worries about the aboriginal presence are understandable, even though some of the resulting positions disregard both history and other relevant threats. Many innocent and well-intentioned persons may have invested heavily, in the personal as well as the financial sense, in the salmon fishery, without being adequately aware of all the factors involved. The alarm of such persons at the increasing presence of aboriginal interests in the salmon fishery may be understandable. It might be hoped that they would express equal alarm at other factors with as much or more potential influence on their aspirations.

Users of salmon habitat

These may be separated into business/industrial, and general. The businesses may include forest-related enterprises, mining, farming, agricultural, transportation in all its mechanized forms, and real estate development. Overlapping somewhat with the latter are aggregations of householders with needs for waste disposal systems for urban run-off, sewage, and solid waste. The impacts of competing use may include pollution, destruction of living space, reduction or other harmful alteration of biological productivity, obstruction of spawning or juvenile migrations, siltation and other damage to spawning gravels, changes in river hydrology, and temperature changes. The potential impacts can occur in areas ranging from the headwaters of small streams, through lakes, estuaries, and marine shorelines, to large coastal seaways, and the continental shelf. The threats may be potentially catastrophic but rare as in the case of major oil spills, chronic and low level, virtually permanent as in the case of urbanization and former land use changes in estuaries, or reversible - perhaps over long time periods, as in the case of logging damage to streams and watersheds.

The traditional aspirations of competing industrial users of salmon habitat have been to maximize short or long term profit by increasing income or reducing costs. For the householder the aspiration may simply be to get the waste out of the house and out of mind, or having good road systems for the household vehicles.

The past tendency was for the industrial user of salmon habitat to pass the costs of reduced fisheries productive capacity on to the users of the salmon resource, or through government to the general taxpayer. However, increasingly for the past decade or so, though not perfectly, the developer or the industry is expected or required to bear the costs of preventing damage to salmon habitat, to mitigate it when unavoidable, or as a last resort, to provide some form of compensation, for instance in the form of hatchery construction, or acquisition of other habitat to be dedicated to the salmon, or in effect, some form of ecological reserve. Nonetheless old aspirations die hard, and examples both large and small of a willingness to conduct activities potentially damaging to salmon recur, though now often with major controversy.

More recently, some industries appear to aspire to be perceived as, or perhaps even to actually be, environmentally friendly. However, in other cases the industrial position has been devoted to its own narrowly defined interests, either nakedly so, or masked by rhetoric. The latter may include hints of passionate concerns of the alleged implications of say, environmental conservation, for employment, despite documentable actions proving major reductions in employment in the industry which have nothing to do with environment whatsoever. This said, some industries have been required to and have spent large sums on improving the quality of waste discharges to both air and water, or have otherwise altered their practices.

Recent small "p" political trends suggest a turning away from aspirations for standards of government and business behaviour which take into account the general good, or needs and wants of the community at large. Thus we have pressures for deregulation (often undefined, at least publically), for decentralization (i.e. narrowing of national or region-wide social and environmental standards); for reducing the size and role of government, and for "freeing business from government shackles" in order to increase some type of "efficiency", usually undefined. We have major propaganda campaigns for the reduction of government spending (environmental standards, community services) in the name of deficit reduction, but little or no media reference to the impacts of major and continuing tax concessions to business on the capacity to cope with deficits or to serve the public interest.

The General Social Climate

The prevailing mixture of public and sectoral attitudes implies a set of aspirations about society in general, which may condition responses to specific issues, such as the use of the salmon resource and its sustaining environments. Some of the component attitudes may be conflicting, even within the same individual or supposedly uniform groups. Nonetheless they must be taken into account in decisions about the future of salmon. Some of the attitudes amount to articles of faith - in some cases similar to earlier and persistent beliefs that the earth was flat. Mere dismissal of such attitudes will not help. They must be understood before they can be changed. However, change they must if the resource, and thus its users whoever they may ultimately be, are to prosper.

A flat earth example:
Many persons, and at least one of our political parties have strong feelings about the need for increasing the punishment of criminals - such as thieves, rapists and murderers. They are in favour of modifying the justice system to make it easier to convict those suspected of such crimes. They may also be in favour of focusing more on the victims of crimes, and changing the laws to ensure restitution - compensation for victims commensurate with the magnitude of the crime.

Aboriginal nations in the Americas in general and in Canada's west coast have been systematically robbed of territory, resources or access to resources, culture and confidence and subject to various forms of abuse, often horrendous, that would be regarded as criminal if done to others. The robbery and abuse has continued since colonial times. This is verifiable historical fact. Although the situation is now improving, the abuse still continues, and its effects will haunt all of us, not just aboriginals for decades to come, in the form of both human tragedy and social costs - jails, illnesses of all kinds, social assistance spending, to name just a few expenses.

AND YET, some of those individuals and political groups avowedly most in favour of facilitating the capture of criminals, increasing their punishment, and compensating the victims seem most in favour of denying justice and redress for the aboriginals of our country, whether in general or with respect to the salmon fishery.

Traditional Fisheries, Then

A variety of sources, including Aboriginal elders, reports of earliest explorers, some traders, old collections of artifacts, illustrations in old journals, early photographs, as well as archeological and anthropological work testify to the richness and complexity of aboriginal society on Canada's west coast before contact with the Europeans. The writings become somewhat repetitive in their acknowledgments - of the highly structured society ("almost as complex as ours"), "vital culture and great art," "great collections of material goods," "-- - ancient civilization ---," "--- a great people who were fond of the agreeable arts ---." The cultures resembled those of the so-called civilized nations at the time of contact in that society was hierarchical with strata ranging from aristocracy to slaves; it acquired and displayed accumulations of sophisticated material goods; had a rich ceremonial and religious life; and had the wealth and leisure to sustain the production of what are increasingly recognized as major world class art forms.

In coastal areas or along major rivers, we must imagine villages with immense timber dwellings each of which may have housed many of families belonging to the same group, with their attendants. The dwellings had tall totem poles outside, were supported by large impressively carved posts, and in the coastal communities, with ranks of sea-going canoes drawn up nearby. The canoes could be beautifully decorated and up to about 20 metres in length - bigger than some of the ships used by European explorers. The canoes were used in war and trade over distance up to about 800 kilometers. The canoes also played a role in the rich and complex ceremonial life governing economy, trade, marriage, and funerals. There were forms of hereditary ownership of land and resource access, including the fisheries for salmon.

The rich and complex cultures were made possible by the abundance of natural resources. One of the most important of these was salmon. Seasonally, salmon were highly abundant on average, although more so in some areas than others. Their anadromous life history made then available in high concentrations. However, the seasonal duration of availability was often short, necessitating speed and efficiency in both harvesting the fish and processing the catches. Harvesting was accomplished by hook and line with lures, harpoons, spears, gaffs, dip nets, gill nets, and elaborate weirs and traps. The technology was diverse and sophisticated.

The importance of the salmon in the economy of many groups was such that the first salmon of each season, or in some cases the annual arrival of each species, were greeted with elaborate rituals and ceremonies. The amounts of dried or smoked salmon put aside for winter were often large enough to allow "leisure" time devoted to the complex of feasts and ceremonials.

Estimates of pre-contact population range from about 50,000 up to as high as 250,000. By 1950, less than 20,000 survived, according to one published estimate. The numbers had been decimated by diseases of European origin, for which the aboriginals had not developed immunity. In some areas, whole villages were virtually wiped out by foreign diseases. Government policy and colonial "entrepreneurism" compounded the disease problem. The aboriginals were virtually confined to small government-managed reserves on small parcels of land, denied traditional economic access to the land and resources, including the salmon, which had sustained health and culture before contact. Children were taken from parents and sent to sometimes abusive church schools which attempted to stamp out the native languages and cultures. Deprived of their normal economic and cultural support systems, many became dependent on government support for housing, food, clothing, and health care. Most were denied access to the financial basis for entry into the now dominant culture, and were further barred from full participation in the "new" life by the debilitating impacts of the often abusive educational system, coupled with racial discrimination in society at large.

Traditional Fishers Now

The impacts of this treatment are abundantly evident today. Many aboriginals still suffer the social scars, which are similar amongst disadvantaged social groups of any origin - high unemployment, high suicide rates, low education, high substance abuse, high crime rates, and lower life expectancy. Some survived well, perhaps more often in those relatively isolated communities where it was easier for some of the traditional values to persist, subsistence by hunting and fishing was easier, and adverse influences of white society were weaker.

As late as 1950 (e.g. Inverarity, 1950) it was stated that, "--- Northwest Indian art is almost dead today," ""--- the Indian and his culture were doomed ----." "It can be said that the creative activity of the Northwest Coast tribes ended with the turn of the century." "It is only a matter of time before the culture of the Northwest Coast people will disappear completely."

While the horrendous impacts leading to conclusions like those above were occurring, some government officials, museum staff, anthropologists, and opportunists collected examples of aboriginal art. Some went into private collections, but much was archived in museums and universities across North America and in Europe. It seems likely that, coupled with recollections of community elders, these collections played an important role in the presently growing renaissance of our west coast native cultures.

Access to the collections of artifacts, plus growing anger at the injustice of the treatment by the dominant majority, improved education for some, and support from some elements of the larger society, has led to increased cultural pride and confidence, and to actions intended to regain some of was in effect stolen from them. Aboriginal culture, far from dying as suggested in the above statements from 1950, began a rebirth. Increasing numbers of superb aboriginal artists began rediscovering and building upon their traditional genre. The art forms, and the concepts underlying them are now achieving wide respect and even popularity. Art shows, art sales, books, media attention, and museums pay frequent and for some, lucrative tribute to the new manifestations of the aboriginal culture and its art. Feasts and ceremonies are once again given, complete with song, dance, masks, food - and guests not of their culture. At such feasts, one may be lucky enough to experience magnificent old dances and songs performed by proud young students wearing newly created masks and costumes - within a huge new dwelling with magnificently carved support posts and tall totem poles outside.

Pacific Salmon in Canada

Life history of the salmon resource

Pacific salmon in Canada are comprised of five main species - Pink, Sockeye, Chum, Coho, and Chinook. The species are distinguished by size, behaviour, life history differences, and other biological characteristics. However, all five species have in common an anadromous life history, in which most adults migrate to freshwater from the sea to lay and fertilize their eggs in the river gravel. The adults die after spawning. After hatching from the eggs in the spring of the year, the juveniles, after freshwater residency ranging from days to about two years, travel to sea. There, they may travel many thousands of kilometers, feeding and maturing before returning to their natal river again, to reproduce and die.

The adult salmon may travel hundreds of kilometers upstream from the sea to their spawning areas. Most home with great exactitude to the patch of gravel in the river or small stream from which they originally hatched. Others, such as some stocks of pink and chum salmon may spawn in estuarine gravel in the mouths of rivers with good subgravel fresh water flows.

A small percentage of maturing fish may stray to streams other than the home river. Such straying enabled salmon to colonize barren rivers formed after the melting of the extensive glaciers covering much of Canada's west coast during the Pleistocene glaciation. The percentage of salmon straying may be small, but over hundreds or thousands of years, it was sufficient to develop the region's widespread and abundant salmon resource along a coast recently (in geological terms) deeply covered by glacial ice.

The young salmon typically hatch in the spring following the laying of the eggs. The young of most sockeye salmon then enter upstream or downstream lakes in which most rear for one year, but some for two years. After lake residence they migrate to sea. The young of most pink and chum salmon travel directly to sea almost immediately after hatching. The Chinook salmon have diverse life histories. Some adults of some Chinook stocks enter the rivers from the sea in spring, but most surviving stocks migrate to freshwater in late summer or autumn. The young of some stocks in short coastal rivers may migrate to estuaries soon after hatching and rear in brackish river mouth waters. Other young Chinook salmon may reside in the river for about 90 days, still others for one year, before migrating to sea.

The young salmon, after entering the sea, usually migrate along shorelines for the first few weeks. Shorelines offer good foraging for food, and safety from deep water predators. After leaving shore zones they tend to migrate northwest along the coast, with some species and stocks migrating to deep oceanic waters before beginning the cycle all over again. Coho and Chinook may have a greater tendency to remain in or near coastal waters. Some Coho may remain in enclosed coastal seas for the marine portion of their life history.

The size of the salmon resource

Historically, for the region as a whole, pink salmon were the most abundant, followed by Sockeye, Chums, Coho, and Chinook in that order. The former maximum numbers of salmon returning to their natal rivers are not known with much certainty. Estimates of the numbers of sockeye and pink salmon near the turn of the last century range up to about 100 million of each of these two species for the Fraser River alone. Large stocks of these species also occur in other major rivers such as the Skeena, and Nass. However, total numbers of Chum, Pink, and Coho salmon produced in smaller coastal rivers streams can be significant, and locally very important. In very small streams, numbers of spawners surviving the various seaward fisheries might have been as low as a few hundred fish in an average year. Maximum numbers of salmon of all species spawning in Canada's west coast rivers in the period 1983 - 1992 totaled about 50 million fish. Maximum catches exceeded this number.

Salmon spawner enumeration is difficult even with the best of efforts, and most small salmon streams have received little attention. Numbers in small systems are thus poorly known. However, it is known that, as might be expected, small streams are vulnerable to human damage, and that many have been damaged, some to the point that they no longer support salmon. Former salmon streams in highly urbanized areas even may no longer be recognizable as streams. Successful harvest management coupled with environmental improvement is restoring some major stocks of sockeye and pink salmon to high levels in peak years. Certain runs on the Fraser and Skeena Rivers are examples. Other stocks and species may be low due to a combination of natural processes and human damage to the environment, or relatively abundant, depending on the area.

Before European contact, salmon were a major element in the economy and culture of the aboriginal inhabitants. The abundance of salmon formed the basis for rich and complex cultures in areas ranging from the open coast to river areas up to hundreds of kilometers from the sea. Estimates of pre-contact catches on the Fraser River by aboriginals range up to about 2.5 million fish annually. For the region as a whole, the number must have been much greater.

There seems little doubt that the overall abundance of salmon has decreased on Canada's west coast, despite recent successful attempts to rebuild certain key stocks of sockeye and pink salmon. The causes of the declines (as distinct from annual or cyclic fluctuations) include overfishing, damage to salmon habitat, and natural environmental fluctuations.

The use of the salmon resource

Commercial : Since the late 1800's, most of the catches of salmon in Canada's Pacific region have been taken in the commercial fishery. The numbers have been dominated by pink, sockeye, and chum salmon. The salmon are taken by purse seine, gill net, and by trolling with hook and line. In general, the commercial fleet now uses highly sophisticated equipment. The catching power of the commercial fleet is much greater than needed to efficiently harvest the resource. The commercial fishery must thus be very strictly controlled. The wholesale value of the catch is significant in the economy of the region as a whole, and vital in local areas. The salmon may be taken while migrating through or rearing in offshore coastal waters and coastal seaways, or in terminal fisheries near the mouths of natal rivers. In the case of major rivers such as the Fraser, some commercial gill net fishing may be allowed in the lower reaches.

Recreational : Recreational fishers capture primarily Chinook and Coho salmon. However, as numbers of sport fishers increase in the face of constant, or in some areas and years, reduced stocks of Chinook and Coho salmon, more effort is focused on Sockeye and Pink salmon. Most of the effort occurs in marine waters, with only minor and closely regulated sport fishing for salmon in selected rivers. The recreational fishery may take large numbers of Coho and Chinook in waters near densely populated areas, such as southwest British Columbia. Sport fisheries highly focused on certain stocks or areas may attract fishers from great distances. The industry is large and lucrative, although overall catches are much less than in the commercial fishery.

Aboriginal : Some of Canada'a west coast Native Indians participate in the commercial fishery, with levels of individual investment ranging from minor to very high. However, such participants are considered above in the commercial fishery. The present day aboriginal fishery referred to in this section has been based on statutory rights to fish salmon for sustenance - the so-called "Indian Food Fishery." Government allocated certain numbers of fish to each legally constituted group (Band) which previously relied on salmon as source of food for survival. The numbers allocated were said to be based on government estimates of nutritional needs, population size, and perhaps historical precedents. Catches were taken at sea by some groups in some years, but mainly from stocks migrating up rivers. Food fishery harvests in rivers may occur from near the river mouth to locations hundreds of kilometers upstream in large systems. Harvest methods may range from modern, as in the use of sophisticated purse seine vessels at sea, to ancient and traditional in the middle and upper reaches of rivers.

Canada's federal statutes establish priorities for allocation of salmon stocks. Conservation has the highest priority - the first needs are those of the salmon themselves, sufficient spawners to ensure not just minimal viability of the stock, but its continued health, or if necessary, recovery. The next statutory priority is supposed to be the aboriginal requirement for food fish. Commercial harvests are the last needs to be met. The catch in the aboriginal food fishery has been increasing in the last decades, but remains a small fraction of the total catch of salmon.

In practice, the food fishery seemed at times to receive the lowest priority, as a result of being practiced on fish after they have, in some cases, been exposed to almost coastwide gauntlets of commercial and recreational fisheries. The problem has been one of stock assessment and the difficulties of harvest control, not necessarily one of overt policy.

However, the priority of the aboriginal food fishery was recently reaffirmed in a court case, in which legal recognition of aboriginal rights to harvest salmon for food were confirmed and extended to include ceremonial and cultural purposes as well.

Since 1991, the aboriginal fishery has been further extended on a trial basis in three river systems. In the Fraser, Skeena, and Somass rivers, the Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans has granted approval for sales of aboriginal salmon catches, according to annually negotiated quotas. The normal commercial fishery may be adjusted to ensure that such aboriginal fisheries are possible while ensuring sufficient spawners. The arrangements have included stipulations about recording catch statistics and enforcement in the fishery. These trial fisheries have been eventful and controversial.

Environmental Conservation

Because of the range of habitats used, from small tributaries, through large rivers & lakes, and via estuaries, shorelines, and coastal areas to distant oceanic waters and back again, salmon are obviously vulnerable to a wide variety of natural or cultural habitat disturbances. The details of their life history reveal mechanisms for hedging survival against natural environmental variability throughout their many habitats. That the mechanisms are successful is indicated by the abundance achieved by salmon along a coast much of which was covered and blocked by glacier ice as little as 10 to 15 thousand years ago. However, the mechanisms may be challenged when faced with human disturbances, particularly those coinciding with adverse natural events.

Both aboriginal accounts from prehistoric time and modern data confirm that the abundance of salmon can fluctuate widely through natural causes. The causes of such fluctuations may result from such factors as drought, freshet, or freezing in spawning streams, to major changes in ocean currents. The latter may result in reduced food production, lower growth and thus increased juvenile vulnerability to predation, and increases in numbers of predators eating the young salmon. However, it appears that the capacity for variation through human causes, whether overfishing or environmental degradation, increased markedly soon after European colonization of Canada's Pacific region.

Roos (1991), a former Director of the International Commission which managed the Fraser River sockeye and pink salmon stocks for many years, estimated that between 1917 and 1985, environmental degradation caused a catch loss of 479,938,000 sockeye salmon, and about 250,000,000 pink salmon - an average of over 10 million salmon per year. Estimates for other species were not provided. The figures apply to the Fraser River alone. Similar estimates for all species and for the west coast of Canada as a whole would have to be much larger.

What are the causes of such horrendous losses? They include construction of dams, which block migrations, divert water, and can affect temperatures, oxygen, and perhaps homing cues; direct and indirect effects of freshwater and marine pollution from municipal, business, and industrial sources; agricultural water diversions, stream damage, pollutants & siltation; habitat alienation by transportation facilities such as shipping terminals in harbours and estuaries, railways, and highways; forest harvesting with loss of streamside vegetation, erosion & siltation, channel destabilization, and hydrograph changes; the many effects of urbanization, which include stream destruction, loss of biological productivity, foreshore damage, and many forms of pollution; and land reclamation. In the latter regard, it may be noted that it has been estimated that by 1913, 70% of the Fraser River delta land formerly inundated by the average annual spring freshet or high marine tides was "reclaimed" or protected from flooding by construction of dykes. This had the effect of alienating many sloughs, channels and marshy areas from use by young salmon, and of reducing the normal high inputs of riparian organic matter into the estuary ecosystem. The benefits were also substantial - reduced flooding, increased farm land, more dry land for all other purposes, safer railways and highways.

Some of the damage or potential for it has been remediated. For example, old logging dams have been removed. Pollution sources have increased, but effluent regulation has become much more stringent. Foreshore and even riparian habitats helping to support salmon in estuaries are now managed to serve the fish as well as other interests. Logging is much more closely regulated to reduce both direct and indirect damage to salmon habitat in streams. Efforts have been made to require developers to aquire, to improve or to create salmon habitat if their actions could cause unavoidable damage. Spawning channels or other types of mitigation may be constructed, although not always successfully. Fishways allowing passage around sections of river posing difficulties for salmon migration have been built and are generally successful. One major example is the Hell's Gate fishway on the Fraser River, built to assist salmon to bypass obstructions resulting from rock slides into a narrow canyon during railway construction in 1913.

However, population increase, industry expansion, urbanization, and proposals for hydroelectric power dams, or other schemes for water storage & diversion continue, all with implications for salmon habitat. Logging practices may still cause new damage to salmon spawning stream and some previous damage may still require decades to heal. Fish habitat provisions of the Canada Fisheries Act, and British Columbia environmental legislation pertaining to salmon habitat are strong, but require political will, sufficient staff, and healthy budgets for effective implementation.

Apparent shifts in philosophy of the dominant political parties, apparent budget problems, and apparently increased resistance by industry are seen by some to be reducing the capacity of government to protect salmon habitat, restore damaged areas or to seek mitigation and compensation. Action and lobbying by direct stakeholders in the salmon resource to counterbalance such trends may be decreasing due to increased focus of their attention and resources on problems of competition for catches of a limited resource. Much of the current public pressure for environmental conservation and sustainable development comes from generalized citizen groups and non-governmental organizations.

Getting from here to where?

As noted above, traditional use of the salmon resource was extensive. Salmon were sustenance in the survival sense, and a source of material wealth for First Nations with access to large populations of the fish. The abundance of the salmon resource was an key factor in the development of rich, confident, and elaborate cultures, whose artistic accomplishments continue to receive broad recognition. The limitations of the environment were largely natural. The resource was accorded respect. Although, some analyses suggest that harvests could approach estimated maximum sustainable yields, and there are stories of hardship due to failure of salmon runs, nothing in the records or the accounts of elders suggests that overfishing or large scale environmental damage by humans was responsible.

Today's accounts of aboriginal value systems reiterate a deep sense of respect for the resource itself, and recognition of the complex set of ecological interrelationships governing the resource. Some still frankly express a sense of spiritual relationship with the resource and the natural world that supports it, a conviction that humans are not separate from the natural world but integral with it, as well as dependent on it. The convergence between such views and those based on modern concepts of ecosystems, both "local" and global is important.

Such concepts conflict with the value systems driving much post-industrial resource use. In this world view, fish, trees, water, land, minerals, food production, even fields of health and medicine, may seem regarded as mere substrates for profit, in which the proponents seem to view themselves as separate from the resource, ecosystem, or other "substrates," and immune from the consequences of their actions. Perhaps nudged by the editorial colouring imparted to nominally factual reporting by some of the dominant media, such views may fan the competitive fears of fishermen and other resource users and decrease the sense of resource husbandry.

In many cases, the combination of modern commercially driven management, with region-wide economic perspectives, cost benefit criteria, excess harvest capacity, mixed stock fisheries, and harmful competing uses of habitat may have severely reduced the levels of salmon stocks. Many may no longer be capable of supporting even local subsistence fisheries at all. The remnants of the traditional group may no longer obtain support from the stock, but they remember the past and are not pleased. We may now have "managed away" some stocks which formed a small fraction of the west coast total potential yield of say, sockeye or Coho salmon, but which were important locally not only for survival but for cultural continuity.

Recognition that salmon stocks and their supporting environment are finite may lead many to intensify their capacity to compete. At times the greed or fear of loss amongst intensely competing sectors of the salmon industry blinds perception of "the limits to growth." Increased regulation, overcapitalization, economic inefficiency, and increased susceptibility of the resource to mistakes in management result. The same applies to questions of environmental conservation in the face of consumptive or preservationist demands by one set of interests with the potential to impinge on other interests. In this circumstance, and faced with an incredible overcapacity for catching salmon, and over-use of the environment, informed government should play a proactive leadership role. The individual stakeholders, be they individual or corporate, fisheries oriented or competing for use of the environment, trapped as they are in historical and cultural circumstances, display too much narrow self interest to allow even defining, quite apart from addressing the root issues.

Concurrently, individuals and enterprises from the dominant society continue to occupy, deny access to, or to make further encroachments into resources and lands once clearly aboriginal and taken with little or no compensation, often without the agreement of those most affected. Encroachment into the small parcels of aboriginal reserve lands are also not uncommon, as if the earlier and greater thefts are insufficient. Anger at some specific instances of encroachment, old or new, recently led to a few extreme examples of civil disobedience. These appeared to spark a wave of reactions and anger amongst aboriginals across the country. More civil disobedience began occurring. Some but not all of the media coverage was sensationalist and biased against the first nations. However, polls at the time suggested that a significant majority of Canadians sided with the First Nations in their fight against past and continuing injustice.

First Nations on Canada's west coast are increasingly active in attempts to achieve political and social justice. Both the Government of Canada and the present Government of British Columbia have embarked on negotiations to resolve land and resource claims by our aboriginal First Nations. Most of our First Nations never ceded their aboriginal rights, neither through war nor negotiation. Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans also initiated the so-called Aboriginal Fisheries Strategy in 1992. Judicial decisions played a role in the concept. The Strategy was intended to increase First Nation participation in fisheries, including that for salmon, and to facilitate increased participation of First nations in management of the fisheries. Decisions to undertake land claim negotiations, and to implement the Aboriginal Fisheries Strategy seem to suggest government recognition of the justice of the long standing Aboriginal request for redress of wrongs. The cynical might claim that government concern about the potential for a crippling spread of civil disobedience was also a motivation.

Components included negotiations of agreements with First Nations, training, co-management (jointly by First Nations and government) of fisheries, trial sales of First Nations catches, and consultation with non-aboriginal stakeholders. Many individual projects were negotiated, ranging from trial fisheries with stipulations for data gathering and enforcement, through design of major fisheries management training programs, to small stock assessment surveys. By any criteria, some projects were highly successful, others were abysmal failures. For many projects however, the criteria for assessing success depended on the beholder. The worker receiving a pay cheque for the first time in his or her life might feel successful; the scientist hoping for reliable data may have suffered feelings of failure.

To expect instant or even early success across the entire region, given the 100 years of neglect, abuse, and exclusion from "mainstream" education and experience would be unrealistic. However, perpetuation of self-fulfilling hypotheses about First Nation potential capabilities which stem from the years of abuse is in effect perpetuation of that abuse.

The continued controversy expressed through the media suggests that however well motivated governments may have been in the above two initiatives, they have underestimated the need to educate the stakeholders, whether individual or corporate, or to counterbalance the sometimes biased framing of news and issues by the media. There is also little public evidence of government leadership in response to the need to prepare acceptable "exit routes" for non-aboriginal fishermen affected by increased aboriginal participation in the salmon fishery. (It might be argued that the First Nations have exercised remarkable restraint in refraining from suggesting that white fishers excluded from the salmon fishery by aboriginal initiatives be confined on placed on small parcels of land in remote areas with shabby housing, unhealthy water supply, no sanitation, poor education for their children, and be barred from the financing needed to re-enter business life).

Both First Nations leadership and government recognize the need to resolve the "education gap" if aboriginals are to increase participation in the fishery, in fishing companies, and in fisheries management. Both the First Nation leadership and government recognize the need for effective and binding co-ordination of fisheries management efforts amongst the many different First Nations hoping for partial restoration of lost access to the salmon fishery. The latter is especially important, and difficult. Salmon stocks can pass through the "territories" of many First Nations during adult spawning migration, seaward migration of the juveniles, and marine rearing. The fish are thus susceptible, as they are now, to both harvest and habitat damage over wide areas. Managing salmon populations is difficult enough even when handled by a single jurisdiction, as now. With many and possibly conflicting jurisdictions, management could be even more complex.

Many other technical and political challenges exist. However, none can be effectively addressed until visions of the role of the salmon fishery in the life and economy of Canada as a whole, of the Pacific Region, and of the First Nations have been articulated, and publically reviewed, with attempts to achieve an open consensus based on a sense of just social goals and full knowledge. Of the present stakeholders, the First Nations seem to be displaying the largest share of statesmanlike explanation, clarification, and reasoned response. Media reporting gives the impression that other direct stakeholders in the salmon fishery may have a tendency for partisan displays. This may have been exacerbated by the apparent failure of government to lead all stakeholders in the evolution of the Aboriginal Fisheries Strategy, or to facilitate development of a vision. The media may also feel that its mission to sell advertising is better served by suitably framed sensationalism than by ensuring well rounded reporting and analysis.

However, some opinion surveys, and some radio phone-in programs suggest the existence of considerable numbers of persons with knowledge, understanding, and a sense of the need for informed discussion as opposed to partisan polemic. However, for objective perspectives - quite apart from solutions - to gain support, governments, all political parties, and the media need to exercise much more of a proactive leadership role.

If the salmon could speak, what would they say?


I am grateful for discussions with representatives of First Nations and colleagues in the Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans. However, the opinions and views expressed in the above are those of the writer, and do not necessarily conform with those of the governments of Canada or British Columbia, or any stakeholders in the salmon resource including First Nations.

Literature Sources

Berger, Thomas R. 1991. A long and terrible shadow. White values, native rights in the Americas. U. Wash Press. Seattle. 183 p.
Foerster, R.E. 1968. The sockeye salmon Oncorhynchus nerka. Bull. Fish. Res. Bd. Canada. No. 162. 422 p.
Inverarity, Robert Bruce. 1950. Art of the northwest coast Indians. U. Calif. Press. L.A. 243 p.
Ricker, W.E. 1987. Effects of the fishery and of obstacles to migration on the abundance of Fraser River sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka).Canada Tech. Rep. Fish. Aquat. Sci. No. 1522 75 p.
Roos, John F. 1991. Restoring Fraser River salmon. A history of the International Pacific Salmon Fisheries Commission, 1937 - 1985. Pacific Salmon Commission. Vancouver. 438 p.
Stewart, Hillary. 1977. Indian fishing. Early methods on the northwest coast. Douglas and Mcintyre. Vancouver. 181 p.
Wright, Ronald. 1992. Stolen continents. The new world through Indian eyes since 1492. Viking. Toronto. 424 p.

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