Only time will tell drought’s full effect on local salmon runs

Rainfall a reprieve for spawning salmon, but dry spell may have taken toll
Salmon swimming up Noons Creek following this week’s rainfall. photo Sandy Burke

When the Hoy Scott Watershed Society hosted their annual Salmon Come Home event last Sunday, the creek was “barely a trickle,” said Tyler Storgaard, hatchery manager.

B.C.’s drought conditions persisted throughout the latter end of the summer and didn’t break until Monday.

“Normally we would expect to see the watershed at some capacity, and be able to have sufficient water flows,” Storgaard said. “Everything seems to be occurring later.”

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“Our local creeks, Noons Creek, Mossom Creek, Hyde Creek, all faced the same challenges, which is the same for many around the Lower Mainland.”

Port Moody’s Noons Creek on Oct. 7. Source: Pacific Salmon Foundation

With heavy rainfall predicted for the Lower Mainland over the next week, local salmon will be getting a much needed reprieve.

But previous die-offs have added to an already relatively low return rate forecasted by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in July.

Storgaard said the hatcheries won’t know the true spawning numbers until later in the season. He said it is hard to paint an overall picture of salmon decline because their return cycles vary by year, river and species.

Hatcheries refer to a bell curve for early, mid and late-return runs, but the early to mid runs have been stifled by the drought, Storgaard said.

The earlier drought conditions were severe enough for the Pacific Salmon Foundation (PSF) to publish a blog earlier this month warning that mass die-offs could be a “harbinger of things to come.”

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen a year like this year when it comes to drought and high temperature,” said Jason Hwang, vice-president of the Pacific Salmon Foundation.

“We haven’t seen rainfall, we’ve seen temperature records being broken, rivers are at the lowest levels that have ever been recorded in some cases.”

Disturbing images of thousands of rotting pink salmon carcasses lining a shallow segment of Neekas Creek in the Great Bear Rainforest on B.C.’s central coast have been circulated widely on social media.

This is an isolated area that is “relatively pristine,” sheltered from human activity and one of the wettest places in the province, according to PSF. 

Hwang said the salmon were holding off from entering the creek, moved in after a short rainfall event, but became trapped when it dried up again.

The Globe and Mail reported this event alone resulted in the death of an estimated 65,000 salmon.

“It’s a really alarming sign that these climate change effects, these extreme temperatures and these drought conditions are affecting salmon even in places like the Great Bear Rainforest,” Hwang said.

Even now as salmon swim up tributaries to their spawning grounds, the long wait may have detrimental effects, according to PSF.

Salmon stop eating and have a limited supply of energy, which they burn waiting to travel upstream and could potentially making some too weak to spawn.

Offspring can face further challenges if born behind schedule, as the timing can disrupt their access to available food sources.

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