Fish are being taken from the oceans faster than they can reproduce. In the last 50 years, 90 per cent of the large fish species in the oceans have been fished to the point that they can no longer sustain their populations. Because of the carbon we’ve put into the atmosphere, climate change is causing changes in sea temperature, ocean acidity, sea level, ocean currents, and the frequency and intensity of storms, all of which have destabilizing and destructive effects on marine wildlife and habitat.
Twelve of B.C.’s 23 species of marine mammals are listed under the Species at Risk Act as endangered, threatened or special concern. Threats to long-lived marine mammals like whales and dolphins include toxins from pollution that accumulate in the food web and end up in their tissues, entanglement in fishing gear, ship strikes, overfishing and damage to the habitat of prey species, climate change, acoustic pollution and habitat degradation.
Fisheries were once the mainstay of communities in the Great Bear, but unsustainable fishing practices and habitat destruction have contributed to their decline. On the B.C. coast, eulachon, herring, sardines, and salmon stocks are in danger of collapse, with dramatic population fluctuations superimposed over long-term declines. Many fisheries have been heavily industrialized, with large vessels capable of travelling from Vancouver to fish virtually any part of the B.C. coast with huge nets. Seine and trawl fisheries scoop up unwanted species, called by-catch, while bottom-trawling vessels damage seabed habitat and the organisms that live there. Both affect the ocean food web beyond the removal of commercially-desired species.
Fishery Declines in BC
In 2017, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada recommended that eight of the 24 Fraser River sockeye salmon stocks should be listed as endangered under Canada’s Species At Risk Act. Like other endangered fish in Canada they may never receive Federal protection, because they are commercially exploited. Fraser River sockeye once numbered in the tens of millions. The lowest return ever recorded was in 2016 when only 850,000 sockeye came back to the Fraser. (source)
In 2018, recreational salmon fishing in the Skeena River is completely closed due to low numbers and smaller size of returning salmon. Recreational chinook salmon fishing in the Nass River is also closed, and only catch-and-release chinook fishing is permitted for the whole North Coast.
Current eulachon run sizes in the Nass and Skeena and nearby rivers are estimated to be less than 10% of what they were in the 1800s when annual First Nation harvests were in the range of 2000 tonnes. Eulachon runs have disappeared from many rivers on the BC coast and have suffered drastic declines coast-wide. (source)
Pacific herring in BC were severely overfished from the 1940s to the 1960s when the commercial herring fishery collapsed. Since the 1970s, herring returning to spawn on the coast have mainly been caught for their roe. Populations have fluctuated dramatically, fish size is smaller on average than historically, and many areas where herring used to spawn are no longer reliable spawning sites. Commercial fishing has been closed for years at a time on the Central coast, Haida Gwaii, and the West coast of Vancouver Island. (source)
Marine species have to contend with the effects of climate change as well. The northeast Pacific ocean is now the most acidic in the world, and changes in ocean oxygen levels have already been documented. Deforestation of an irreplaceable rainforest continues to impact fish and wildlife in many ways. There is so much at stake here, from the headwaters of the salmon spawning rivers to the offshore reefs surrounded by deep blue water.
Rockfish camouflage resembles the seafloor and rock faces where they often hang out, and comes in an incredible array of colours from green to black, and even crimson and vibrant orange.. There are over 100 species of rockfish in the world, and the waters of B.C. host nearly 40 of these solitary and territorial “scorpionfishes”. Older, larger females actually produce more young, so taking larger fish as catch has considerable impact on the population.
Fin whales are the second-largest species of whale in the world, weighing between 80,000-160,000 pounds (40-80 tons). Due to whaling, fin whales are listed as “endangered" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. These gentle giants have recently been making a comeback in the deep fjords and channels of the North and Central Coast and Haida Gwaii.
Once extirpated in Canada, the sea otter has successfully been reintroduced to British Columbia. Today, the otter is an at-risk species protected under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA), as well as the federal Fisheries Act and the British Columbia Wildlife Act. Sea otters are voracious eaters of urchins, which eat kelp. Where otters swim, kelp forests grow, providing nurseries for rockfish and many other species. Shellfish fisheries arose and prospered when urchins and geoducks were plentiful and otters and kelp beds were few, and are now pressing for a cull on these playful mammals.
Glass Sponge Reef
Thought to have gone extinct 40 million years ago worldwide until rediscovered alive and well underneath Hecate Strait in 1987, glass sponge reefs are an ancient, slow-growing life form found deep in the Pacific Ocean. These reefs provide habitat for a variety of other species.
The majority of these ancient reefs—which are still being discovered—have absolutely no protection from the destructive fishing activities that threaten them.