How history is teaching scientists about wild Skeena salmon today

Michael Price is reaching back into history to understand the state of Skeena River wild salmon populations today. 

With little data from before 1960, the Simon Fraser University PhD candidate and SkeenaWild science director is filling in the gaps of wild salmon abundance and diversity from more than 100 years ago by examining the history of settlement and research conducted then by fisheries officers. 

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He shared some of his striking findings on a webinar hosted by SkeenaWild on June 9. 

“Most oftentimes we are talking about the last decade or the last couple of decades and trying to assess change over that time period, and I feel it’s really important to dive a bit deeper, you know for salmon in particular, salmon in the Skeena, they’ve undergone significant changes over the last 150 years,” he said. 

Price’s research stretches as far back as 1870 at Port Essington, located on the south bank of the Skeena River estuary. The town became the principal entry point to the Skeena River for settlers. 

Steamships would arrive from Vancouver and travellers could hire Indigenous guides to take them to the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post at Hazelton. 

Port Essington quickly became a regional hub with a church, schools, saloons and tobacco shops. 

Seven years after the establishment of the settlement, salmon fisheries and canneries became the dominant industry. 

“They became the principal employer for the region and the fishing industry in general generally targeted sockeye and chinook in this early period,” said Price. 

While sockeye were making their way to the Skeena estuary, six metre long rowboats manned by two fishermen would be towed by cannery boats to the mouth of the Skeena. 

When they arrived, they would release themselves from the cannery boat and fish for a week. Some fishermen would sleep on land, but many had canvas tents on the bow of their boats, just large enough to squeeze in for the night. 

“On the Skeena the most number of boats fishing at one time was 1,300,” said Price. “Thirteen-hundred vessels fishing for salmon six days a week certainly was able to catch a number of fish, Sundays were really the only day of rest for fishermen and the fish.” 

Concerns over declining catches started to be raised in 1912. Fisheries officers began collecting salmon scales as part of a research project to find out what was going on. By 1918, they were collecting 125 samples every three days during the entire two-month fishery. Sometimes the fisheries officers would include detailed information with the scales, like total fish caught and fish size and weight. 

“Just invaluable information in this collection, and it took place from 1912 right until 1947 so we have this really rich collection of scales and biological data,” said Price. 

One of the reasons the scales are so valuable is because they are similar to rings in the core of a tree. Price can measure the growth in fresh and ocean water each year of a fish’s life. That combined with modern genetic tools can paint a picture of the scale of the population. 

Price and his team have sent more than 5,500 scales to molecular genetics labs, finding that there are 13 main populations of salmon in the Skeena. Modern data alone would suggest that seven of these 13 populations have declined over the past 50-years. 

But Price’s research indicates a much more drastic situation. By looking at population numbers from well before 1960, his findings indicate that the overall wild salmon population in the Skeena has declined from nearly 1.8 million annually in historical times, to under 500,000, a decrease of around 75 per cent. Also, each of the 13 populations have experienced a drop in numbers according to the research. 

Price has recently submitted research for review on wild salmon diversity in the Skeena. That work looks at the life history of salmon, for example, how many years they stay in fresh water before they spawn. The last chapter of his thesis looks at climate change and how that may affect wild salmon populations. Those works have not been published yet. 

SkeenaWild Conservation Trust is a regional initiative based in Terrace, B.C. that works to make the Skeena River and the nearby coast a model of sustainability for human and salmon populations. 

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