Wild salmon are considered the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest of North America. Every year, seven species of Pacific salmon make epic migrations from the ocean up the same rivers and streams in which they were born, sometimes traveling thousands of miles inland. But pollution, habitat loss, damming of rivers, over-fishing, stocking fish farms with alien Atlantic species and the associated arrival of piscine reovirus all threaten salmon and the balance of this ecosystem.
The flora and fauna of this part of the world depend on Pacific salmon for survival, making them keystone species. Orcas and sea lions feed on salmon at sea while bald eagles, bears and otters catch and carry them inland where their nutrient-rich remains fertilise the forests.
Similarly, for the people of the Pacific Northwest, salmon are much more than just food. They are the key to a way of life. The absence of these species would have devastating impacts on wildlife and humans alike.
‘Lifeblood’, an ongoing project, explores the story of wild salmon throughout Washington State and British Columbia, illustrating the critical role that they play in the ecosystem, while investigating some of the major causes of their decline.
The project also looks at some of the different conservation efforts that are being employed to help save salmon. These include population surveys, the removal of dam walls, retailers choosing to only sell wild salmon, and individuals taking huge risks to test fish samples and find out the truth about piscine reovirus being introduced through Atlantic salmon farms.
A male Pink Salmon [Oncorhynchus gorbuscha] makes his way up his natal stream in Washington State.
Two wild male Sockeye Salmon [Oncorhynchus nerka] fight for mating rights on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. Salmon are a keystone species in the Pacific Northwest making them a vital part of the ecosystem as much of the flora and fauna depends on them for survival.
A male and female Chinook Salmon [Oncorhynchus tschawytscha] mating in the North Cascades in Washington State.
The egg of a Pink Salmon [Oncorhynchus gorbusha] rests in a nest, known as a redd, in the North Cascades in Washington State.
Out-migrating Coho Salmon fry [Oncorhynchus kisutch] seek refuge in a shaded stream in Washington State.
As soon as salmon enter fresh water, they stop eating and slowly begin to deteriorate. Many salmon, such as this Chinook Salmon [Oncorhynchus tschawytscha] develop a white fungus on their scales near the end of their life.
Once salmon die, their job is far from over. Their decaying bodies provide food and valuable nutrients for the other flora and fauna around them.
Bald Eagles [Haliaeetus leucocephalus], a main predator of salmon, are beautiful and skillful hunters. They are also opportunistic and proficient scavengers, stealing food from other predators whenever possible.
Every winter, Bald Eagle populations swell in numbers throughout Washington and British Columbia as they migrate from as far away as Alaska to feed on salmon, however, decreasing salmon populations puts iconic predators, such as the Bald Eagle, at risk.
Harbor Seals are often blamed by fishermen for the decline of salmon in the Pacific Northwest. Since their protection in the 1970’s, Harbor Seal [Phoca vitulina] populations have risen from a few thousand to 40,000 in the Strait of Georgia alone. This coincided with the decline of Southern Resident Killer Whale and Chinook Salmon populations is the reason for their blame. However, the problem is far more complicated than just blaming the decline of wild salmon on one predator as this ecosystem is very complex with many moving parts. Wild salmon are suffering a death of 1000 cuts, meaning there is not just one cause of their decline.
During the fall, Black Bears [Ursus Americanus] enter a stage called ‘hyperphagia’ which is a state of increased hunger as they’re searching for food sources, mainly salmon, to consume to get them through the cold and wet winters in the Pacific Northwest.
Southern Resident Killer Whales [Orcinus orca] are a subspecies of Orca native to the waters off of Washington State and British Columbia. Chinook Salmon make up 80% of their diet, meaning one of the largest threats to this species are Atlantic Salmon Farms, which are located throughout Washington State and British Columbia.
Atlantic Salmon Farms have been scientifically proven to have catastrophic effects on native salmon species as they leech diseases out into open water which are contracted by native salmon species on their migratory routes.
These coastal temperate rainforests are heavily reliant on the marine nutrients brought back upstream by salmon in the fall.
As predators catch salmon, they drag their carcasses inland where the nutrients from their decaying bodies is absorbed by the surrounding flora making salmon one of the worlds greatest natural fertilizers. Without this fertilizer, the landscape in the Pacific Northwest would look drastically different.
A fisherman tosses a salmon to his co-workers at the Pike Place Fish Co. A local tourist attraction in Seattle’s Pike Place Market.
Salmon not only affect the local flora and fauna in the Pacific Northwest, they also support tens of thousands of jobs and drive a $3 billion dollar industry which millions of people rely on throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Pike Place Fish Co. Seattle, Washington.
Open Net Atlantic Salmon pens are found throughout the Salish Sea in Washington State and British Columbia. Despite there being a market for Atlantic Salmon aquaculture, these Atlantic Salmon net pens pose a huge threat to the survival of wild salmon and many other species throughout the Pacific Northwest as they are a breeding ground for diseases which infect wild salmon as they swim past these farms on their migration routes.
Last August, a Cooke Aquaculture net pen, located off of Cypress Island in Washington State, malfunctioned and released over 300,000 Atlantic Salmon [Salmo salar], a species that Washington State classifies as invasive into the Puget Sound.
Cooke Aquaculture tried to deceive the general public by blaming this event on an unusually high tide due to the solar eclipse, which was soon found out to be false.
Since this incident, Washington State has banned Atlantic Salmon net pens and ordered them to be phased out by 2025. However, the Pacific coast is not safe from this industry yet, as Atlantic Salmon farms are currently still allowed to operate in British Columbia making it the only place on the west coast of North America to allow this type of industry.
The upstream migration of a Coho Salmon [Oncorhynchus kisutch] is blocked due to the implementation of a salmon hatchery on the Quinsam River on Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, Canada. This image represents the current state of salmon populations as they are in precipitous decline throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Deceased female hatchery Chinook Salmon [Oncorhynchus tschawytscha] hang above a drip-trough before they are cut open and their eggs harvested to produce a new generation of hatchery salmon.
Employees at a hatchery on Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, Canada squeeze the sperm (milt) from a deceased male hatchery Chinook Salmon [Oncorhynchus tshawytscha]. There is a wide-spread misconception that salmon hatcheries are a viable solution to declining salmon populations and consumer demand, particularly in areas in which long-term damage has been inflicted to wild salmon such as the damming of rivers, logging and over-fishing. However, Hatcheries are only a short-term fix as they dilute the gene pool of the wild stocks, effectively keeping wild salmon on life support, but not solving the issue of their decline.
Independent biologist Alexandra Morton collects Atlantic Salmon scales which spill over the side of a salmon farm restocking vessel off of Swanson Island in the Broughton Archipelago in British Columbia, Canada. The scale samples will be sent off to a lab and the results will tell her whether these fish are infected with Piscine Reovirus (PRV), a virus which originates from Norway and is believed to cause the highly infectious fish disease Heart and Skeletal Muscle Inflammation (HSMI). This disease essentially renders salmon too weak to swim.
Alexandra Morton is an independent biologist who originally came to the Broughton Archipelago to study Orcas nearly forty years ago. However, once Atlantic Salmon farms moved into the area, wild salmon and Orcas moved out. She has since dedicated her life to saving wild salmon and the fragile ecosystem that she calls home. Over the years Alexandra has co-authored and written numerous scientific papers which have been published in well-known scientific journals. These papers detail the harm that these Atlantic Salmon farms are causing to the Salish Sea.
At the time of writing this, local First Nations have been occupying the Swanson Island Atlantic Salmon farm, operated by Marine Harvest in the Broughton Archipelago, in protest for 286 days. These foreign companies not only have a dramatic impact on wild salmon and the environment, but they also have significantly hurt First Nations communities as the farms have been setup in their territories without their consent. Atlantic Salmon farms have had catastrophic impacts on the First Nations traditional food source as they have survived off of wild salmon and have used it for ceremonial purposes since time immemorial.
There are many organizations that are involved with the conservation of wild salmon. The Wild Fish Conservancy, in Washington State, carries out research projects in rivers, lakes and near-shore habitats and focuses on the protection of native fish species and their habitats by developing and implementing effective restoration strategies.
The Wild Fish Conservancy employs a number of different strategies which help them to conserve native fish populations, such as the near-shore fish use survey in the Hood Canal in Washington State. Here, juvenile salmon are caught, identified, measured, and safely released back into the Puget Sound. This allows the Wild Fish Conservancy to better direct near-shore restoration efforts to the most critical near-shore habitats, which are vital to salmon in their early stages of life.
The Lower Elwha-Klallam Tribe runs a fish trap project which is used for two purposes. The first is for management, specifically, to help model run size estimates for certain stocks such as Strait of Juan de Fuca Coho Salmon. The abundance of multiple trap sizes is used to estimate overall smolt abundance. The other use is to measure fish response to restoration actions, such as the removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams on the Elwha River.
A Coho Salmon fry [Oncorhynchus kisutch] captured in the Lower Elwha-Klallam Tribe fish trap in Washington State.
In 2014 the largest dam removal project in U.S. history was carried out and has seen remarkable success. Since the removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams, the Elwha River has roared back to life, and so too have the salmon. To many, the removal of this dam is a symbol of hope and has been proof that if we can remove obstacles that negatively impact wild salmon and provide the correct building blocks, nature will reclaim what was once taken from it. Hopefully one day soon, we will see large schools of salmon returning to these ecosystems that rely so heavily on them.
After the deconstruction of the Elwha Dam in Washington State, sediment that had accumulated behind the dam wall was washed downstream where it re-created a beach that had not been there for over 80 years. This new habitat is ideal for juvenile salmon to forage in before they head out into the Pacific.
A male Chum Salmon [Oncorhynchus keta] migrates upstream in Washington State.
A Coho Salmon [Oncorhynchus kisutch] leaps out of the water in a bay off of Vancouver Island. Hopefully we can increase our conservation efforts of wild salmon so that this icon of the Pacific Northwest can flourish once again.