Study indicates Skeena River once supported more than 50 times more chum salmon.

Contacts: Nick Gayeski – Wild Fish Conservancy ([email protected], 206-310-4005), Greg Knox and Michael Price - SkeenaWild Conservation Trust ([email protected], 250-615-1990; [email protected], 250-847-1519), Jack Stanford - The University of Montana ([email protected], 406-250-1006)

Results from a study conducted by Canadian and US scientists were published this week, indicating that Skeena River chum salmon were up to 52 times more abundant in the past than at present. The river in British Columbia is well-known for its salmon angling.

The scientists from SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, Wild Fish Conservancy, and the University of Montana found that while in the last five years the annual return to the Skeena is fewer than 9,000 chum salmon, the average return was between 268,000 and 471,000 chum salmon in the period 1916-1919. The enormity of the decline over time is much greater than previously thought.

“It is plausible that the fertility of the Skeena River and its estuary has declined considerably as a result of more than 100 years of intense exploitation of most Skeena salmon species, and the subsequent reduction in returning salmon nutrients,” said co-author Nick Gayeski of Wild Fish Conservancy. Although chum salmon are not currently an economically important species for Northern B.C. commercial fisheries, they deliver vital marine nutrients to coastal and terrestrial systems.

“Our analysis enables us to look further back in time and more accurately assess the severity of loss in the Skeena,” said SkeenaWild executive director Greg Knox. “Previous estimates of historical salmon abundance have suffered from a ‘shifting baseline syndrome,’ whereby evaluations have been based on data from the 1950s at best, and often the 1980s.”

“Intense harvest pressure over the last century is likely the single largest factor contributing to the sustained decline in Skeena River chum,” said the report’s lead author, Michael Price. “However, other interactive influences such as reduced ocean productivity, habitat degradation, competitive interactions with hatchery fish, and by-catch in mixed-stock fisheries, may now inhibit their recovery.”

The authors believe it may be possible to again see substantially larger wild chum populations, but only if conservation measures are immediately initiated. “The Skeena is still a relatively intact ecosystem with great habitat. If the right measures were put in place, it could become the great chum river our research shows it once was,” said co-author Jack Stanford of the Flathead Lake Biological Station of the University of Montana.

Published in the scientific journal Transactions of the American Fisheries Society, the study is also available at wildfisconservancy.org.

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Wild Fish Conservancy is a non-profit organization dedicated to the recovery and conservation of the Northwest region’s wild-fish ecosystems, with over 2,500 members. Wild Fish Conservancy’s staff of over 20 professional scientists, advocates, and educators works to promote technically and socially responsible habitat, hatchery, and harvest management to better sustain the region’s wild fish heritage. For more information, visit us at wildfishconservancy.org or follow us on Facebook at facebook.com/wildfishconservancy.