1 Salmon: Canada’s Life Blood

Salmon is the equivalent of life. This belief holds strong in the First Nations people living along the west coast of Canada. For thousands of years, salmon have been their primary source of sustenance. Now, it is under threat. Fewer numbers of salmon are found in the wild than ever before. The Government of Canada (2018) reports that half of Canada’s Chinook Salmon are now endangered, with only one out of sixteen populations across Canada considered stable. The remaining populations are all in decline. The same fate has befallen the Atlantic Salmon. According to the Atlantic Salmon Federation (2018), the total harvest in Canada in 2017 was down by 17% from the year before. Reasons for this decline abound, ranging from the perils of salmon farming and overfishing to climate change. Regardless of the reason, Canada’s salmon population must be protected for future generations – as it is integral to Canada’s cultural identity, economy, and environment.

Salmon is a national treasure, a rich Canadian cultural icon and thus in need of our protection. It is deeply rooted in the history and culture of the First Nations people: “Long before the arrival of Europeans of the north Pacific Coast, the Indians of the region had developed an elaborate, complex culture based on the abundance of the marine environment” (Forester & Forester, 1975, p. 38). In fact, the salmon was so important that some tribes believed salmon carried immortal human souls. Alfred (2010), an indigenous educator, states salmon “… is so connected into our lives that if salmon disappear, so will we” (p.2). In light of this, some tribes, like the Nuxalk of Bella Coola, charged members of their clan with the safekeeping of their rivers to ensure no overexploitation of salmon fishing occurred. Transgressions were often severely punished, sometimes even by death. With salmon at the heart of the west coast communities’ survival, the symbol naturally found its way into cultural artefacts. For example, salmon feature dominantly in many of the totem poles, paintings, jewelry, clothing, stories, music, and prayers of the indigenous people. Alfred (2010) confirms this: “We use the salmon for our rituals, food, and trade…” (p. 2). In terms of broader Canadian culture, salmon is predominantly found in the cuisine. Whether baked, roasted, smoked, or dried, salmon can be found on most menus in Canada. In fact, over 50 chefs in British Columbia recently signed a petition to call for the protection of wild salmon (David Suzuki Foundation, 2018). Moreover, cultural festivals honouring salmon are held across Canada, especially on the west coast. One particular festival, the Wild Salmon Caravan in Vancouver, is weeklong and celebrates the salmon’s 250-mile pilgrimage back to the spawning ground at Adam’s Lake. This festival pays homage to the salmon through a variety of arts, highlighting its importance not only in Canadian culture but also to the Canadian economy.

Canada’s economy relies heavily on fishing, another reason salmon demands protection. With the world’s longest coastline, marine life has long featured in Canada’s history and economy. Both the wild capture and aquaculture fisheries of Canada add an incredible $6 billion dollars to the economy every year, employing around 80,000 workers (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 2016). Salmon makes up a good portion of this export. British Columbia alone exported $100 million dollars-worth of wild salmon worldwide between 2008 and 2012 (British Columbia Salmon Marketing Council, 2019). The east coast of Canada also contributes to the export of wild salmon including the provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Quebec. With the numbers in decline in the wild, however, measures need to be taken to safeguard the salmon. Farming salmon has emerged as a possible way to allow nature to replenish its stock. However, this alternative has been plagued with problems. The highest risk method of salmon farming is called ‘net-cage’ farming. Here, salmon are raised in confined nets that are dropped into bays and inlets. Due to the tight confinement of these nets, drugs and other chemicals are administered to the fish to ward off disease. However, some of the fish escape into the wild, carrying disease and parasites to healthy marine life (including wild salmon) in their natural habitats. British Columbia’s Pink Salmon population, for example,  has been particularly devastated by parasites from fish farms, facing near extinction (Krkosek et al., 2007).Although the effort to support wild salmon growth through fish farming is to be applauded, they appear to be counter-productive, doing more harm than good. Better solutions for the protection of wild salmon need to be found if the economy is not to suffer.

Salmon is also an indicator species of the health of the environment and so requires national protection. Salmon nourish not only human beings but also entire eco-systems. They deliver much needed nutrients to both aquatic and terrestrial biomes which support diverse animal and plant life (Hocking & Reynolds, 2011). This includes orca whales, dolphins, sea lions, wolves, bears, and different trees in the coastal rainforests. Scientists have found, for example, that salmon is the main source of meat for large brown bears with high reproductive rates in North America (Hilderbrand et al., 1999). The remnants of the salmon eaten by these bears nourish the forests and the waterways. According to Gende et al. (2002), salmon that die naturally after spawning in the waterways contribute nitrogen, potassium, calcium, and phosphorus to the environment upon death – two of which are essential building blocks for life (Stockner & Ashley, 2003). Phosphorus is of particular concern. Whereas carbon and nitrogen can be restored through human intervention, phosphorus cannot. A 4 kg salmon carries approximately 18 grams of phosphorus, which translates into the production of 7.5 kg of living plant biomass (Vallentyne, 1974). Although the nutrient is released by humankind through wastewater (approximately 2 kg per person per year) and found naturally in some rocks, it is limitedand thus must be recycled through the ecosystem wherever possible. Salmon play a key role here:

“As a life form, salmon have demonstrated… their unique ability to increase the productivity of their natal streams, rivers, and lakes by recycling phosphorus and other carcass nutrients. The importance of this… cannot be overemphasized.” (Stockney & Ashley, 2003, p. 12).

From this, then, one can assume that when salmon are in danger, all life is in danger. No stronger argument for the preservation and protection of salmon can or need be made.

To sum up, the cultural, economic, and environmental impact salmon has on life in Canada is by no means trivial. The loss of salmon, therefore, would have disastrous consequences to the very fabric of Canadian society. The need for protection and conservation is clear – how this is to be done, however, is still up for debate. In the words of David Suzuki: “We are in a giant car heading towards a brick wall and everyone is arguing over where they are going to sit.” It is time to focus on the wall. Now.



Alfred, G. (2010). The development and evaluation of ‘Salmon – the lifeline to our culture’ (unpublished master’s thesis). University of Victoria, Victoria, Canada.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. (2016). Industry overview of fish and seafood. RetrievedDecember 12, 2019 from http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/industry-markets-and-trade/canadian-agri-food-sector-intelligence/fish-and-seafood/industry-overview/?id=1383756439917

Atlantic Salmon Federation. (2018). State of North American Atlantic Salmon populations. Retrieved December 10, 2019 from https://www.asf.ca/assets/files/state-of-population-2018-report.pdf

David Suzuki Foundation. (2018). More than 50 top B.C. chefs sign letter to B.C. government calling for protection of wild salmon. Retrieved December 13, 2019 from https://davidsuzuki.org/press/50-top-b-c-chefs-sign-letter-b-c-government-calling-protection-wild-salmon/

Forester, J., & Forester, A. (1975) Fishing: British Columbia’s Commercial Fishing History. Saanichton, B.C.: Hancock House Publishers Ltd.

Gende, S., Edwards, R., Willson, M., & Wipfli, M. (2002). Pacific Salmon in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems: Pacific Salmon subsidize freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems through several pathways, which generates unique management and conservation issues but also provides valuable research opportunities. BioScience, 52(10),  917–928. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1641/0006-3568(2002)052[0917:PSIAAT]2.0.CO;2

Government of Canada. (2018). Summary of COSEWIC wildlife species assessments.Retrieved December 10, 2019 from https://www.canada.ca/content/dam/eccc/documents/pdf/cosewic/wsam-results/november-2018/2018-summary-species-assessment-table-november-en.pdf

Hilderbrand, G., Schwartz, C., Robbins, C., Jacoby, M., Hanley, T., Arthur, S., & Servheen (1999). The importance of meat, particularly salmon, to body size, population productivity, and conservation of North American brown bears. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 77(1), 132-138.

Hocking, M., & Reynolds, J. (2011). Impacts of salmon on riparian plant diversity. Science, 331(6024), 1609-1612. doi: 10.1126/science.1201079

Krkosek, M., Ford, J., Morton, A., Lele, S., Myers, R., & Lewis, M. (2007). Declining wild salmon populations in relation to parasites from farm salmon. Science, 318(5857), 1772-1775.  doi:10.1126/science.1148744

Stockney, J. & Ashley, K. (2003). Salmon nutrients: Closing the circle. American Fisheries Society Symposium, 34, 3-15.

Vallentyne, J. (1974). The algal bowl: Lakes and man.Ottawa, CA: Department of the Environment, Fisheries and Marine Service.


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