Bulkley Valley Research Centre - Science in the Public Interest

Skeena Salmon Habitat Conference

Tuesday September 15, 2009  8:00am - Wednesday September 16, 2009 4:00pm

Hudson Bay Lodge - Smithers, BC

The Skeena Salmon Habitat Conference, hosted by the Bulkley Valley Research Centre on Sept. 15 and 16 in Smithers, BC, attracted over 100 participants to discuss the health of the Skeena watershed — one of BC’s most ecologically and culturally important ecosystems.

With sockeye returns for the Skeena River at roughly half their projected numbers in 2009, the conference presented a unique opportunity for timely and inclusive discussion about cumulative impacts to one of the province’s most important watersheds. It was the first of its kind to bring together this caliber of expertise about the Skeena’s salmon habitat and included perspectives from First Nations, industry, government, NGOs and academics on the current state of the Skeena River’s salmon stocks.

“I thought it was very encouraging that we had people from both the provincial and federal governments there. A tremendous amount of credit has got to go to the Bulkley Valley Research Centre for putting this on,” BC Pacific Salmon Forum chair and conference speaker John Fraser said following the event. “If we’re going to save the salmon, the steelhead and the habitat, and counteract the potential impacts of climate change and global warming, there has got to be the closest cooperation between the federal and provincial governments.”

The conference began with opening remarks by conference chair Brian Riddell, president and CEO of the Pacific Salmon Forum, followed by Bulkley Valley Research Centre board member Brian Fuhr. A traditional First Nations welcome was performed by Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief Woos, house chief for the Cas’Yex (Grizzly House) of the Gitumden (Bear) Clan. Welcoming remarks were also given by Smithers mayor Cress Farrow; Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen, represented by Shelley Browne; and Stikine MLA Doug Donaldson, represented by Shelley Worthington.

In his introduction, Riddell noted that the provincial government had not formally responded to recommendations put forward by the Pacific Salmon Forum, which were released in February 2009. The forum, which was initiated by Premier Gordon Campbell, spent three years and $5 million in provincial funding developing the recommendations. In keeping with those recommendations, Riddell asked delegates, “Could we really develop the Skeena as an example of collaborative ecosystem-based management and really make a significant proposal to the provincial government to take that role on here in the Skeena region?”

The conference proceeded to focus on four main objectives:

1.    Examine the wild salmon habitat recommendations of the Pacific Salmon Forum.
2.    Learn about existing collaborative salmon habitat initiatives on the Skeena and coast.
3.    Learn about the impact of salmon diversity, ecosystem services and climate change.
4.    Develop the Skeena as a prototype for collaborative, ecosystem-based management.

These objectives guided the three main themes of the conference, which were explored over the course of two days by a series of presentations delivered by local, provincial and internationally renowned researchers. The first theme of the conference, Institutional Reform Towards Collaborative Management, provided a rare opportunity to learn about the Pacific Salmon Forum and its recommendations directly from the forum chair, the Honourable John Fraser, who talked about the history of how and why the forum was created, some of its challenges and some key recommendations.

Pacific Salmon Forum director of research Jon O’Riordan spoke further about the 16 recommendations put forth in the report. One key recommendation discussed was to “apply an ecosystem-based approach to managing all resources in watersheds and marine environments.” In Jon O’Riordan’s words, governing bodies need to start “thinking like a watershed.”

Bringing in the federal perspective, Mark Saunders from Fisheries and Oceans Canada introduced conference participants to the Wild Salmon Policy. Released in June 2005, the policy promotes institutional change in order to transition towards an approach that focuses on collaborative monitoring and management, including shared responsibility. The policy specifies clear objectives, establishes strategies and presents a decision-making process to ensure salmon conservation and habitats are the first priority for resource management.

Focusing the federal perspective closer to the Skeena watershed, Mel Kotyk with Fisheries and Oceans Canada followed up with a presentation on the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area (PNCIMA) initiative. Guided by the Canada’s Oceans Strategy (2002) and Canada’s Oceans Action Plan (2005), the PNCIMA initiative is a collaborative process designed to develop a management plan for the Pacific central and north coasts. Mel explained that “Outputs relevant to salmon habitat issues in the marine environment could include an ecosystem-based management framework that allows the effects of one activity to be considered in the context of all other activities.”

A common theme through the first set of presentations was the call for institutional reform. John Fraser summed up this thread passionately by asking the question, “Who’s in charge to look after wild Pacific salmon?” His answer: “There isn’t anybody in charge”.

The conference’s second theme focused on Collaborative Experiences in the Skeena/North Coast. Presentations on projects such as the Gitanyow Land Use Plan, Morice River Water Quality and the Stewardship Outreach Program provided examples where the provincial government, particularly at a local level, has worked together with First Nations and other local community groups.

The most complex example of collaborative experiences was provided by Dr. Jody Holmes, Rainforest Solutions Project, who spoke about the challenges of implementing ecosystem-based management in the Great Bear Rainforest. Her key messages strongly emphasized that when initiating ecosystem-based management, “setup is critical — take the time to get everyone on board and the right people in the room.” She reinforced that ecosystem-based management requires adequate resources and “durable and relevant solutions, not quick fixes” must be sought. Holmes cautioned conference participants that “implementing ecosystem-based management is BIG — settle in for the long haul.”

Concluding the conference’s first day, Brian Riddell explored the question of scale alluded to by many presentations. What is an appropriate scale for watershed management that the public can provide input into? Is the Skeena an appropriate size to develop watershed management? Riddell suggested the Skeena is an ideal size. Although smaller than the Fraser Basin, it is still a large watershed with large, well-defined sub-basins that social groups are closely aligned with.

The evening banquet was held at an indoor-outdoor venue, with market-style dining catered by local food producers. A highlight was the presentation of the first-ever Patagonia

Activist Award by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard to Ali Howard of Smithers, BC for her Spirit of the Skeena Swim. The award recognizes Howard’s efforts over 26 days to swim the 610-kilometre Skeena River from its headwaters to the Pacific Ocean to promote connectivity within the watershed.

The second day of the conference focused on the theme Challenges and Opportunities for Skeena Salmon Habitat. A common thread throughout the presentations was the link between salmon diversity and building resiliency to changes in habitat. Michael Webster, from the Moore Foundation, delivered a key presentation linking the diversity of individual salmon stocks in Bristol Bay, Alaska to the health of the bay’s overall salmon population. “Diversity is very important in salmon populations as it provides buffering effects against environmental change,” he said. Applying the learnings from Bristol Bay to the Skeena watershed, Webster suggested the Skeena is at a turning point. “There are all the raw materials to maintain a healthy thriving salmon system. On the other hand, there are enough threats to the Skeena watershed that the loss of habitat and the loss of salmon population diversity is a really serious concern.”

Dr. Jack Stanford, University of Montana, expanded on the habitat loss concept by looking at climate change effects on Skeena stream temperatures. Stanford explained, “the climate is changing, and it will have significant effects here on the Skeena. The Skeena is going to get a lot drier and a lot warmer. The bottom line is that we need to protect the resiliency of the system so that the fish and the people can adapt and change with the climate. It will have a collateral effect on all ecosystem aspects, not just the salmon.”

Brian Riddell brought the conference to a close with some of the key lessons learned. He commented on the level of dedication and commitment to the Skeena watershed, saying, “The importance of the watershed is certainly established and the ingredients, such as commitment, dedication, local experience and the technical expertise, are all in place. What is the next step?”

The Five Minute Forums at the end of the conference provided some answers to this question. Conference organizers and participants, such as Greg Knox from SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, recommended creating a subgroup to carry the ideas of the conference forward. Richard Overstall, Babine Watershed Monitoring Trust, provided a detailed schematic diagram of what a potential Skeena planning protocol could look like.

As the conference drew to a close, there was a sense of a new beginning. The Skeena Salmon Habitat Conference has become the catalyst for further discussions regarding a new watershed governance system for the Skeena watershed. On a formal level, the conference is over. Informally, the dialogue has just begun. Tapping into the level of commitment, dedication, local and technical experience demonstrated at the conference, plans for a follow up workshop, led by the Bulkley Valley Research Centre, are underway.