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Merits and Limits of Ecosystem Protection for Conserving Wild Salmon in a Northern Coastal British Columbia River

Aaron C. Hill, Watershed Watch Salmon Society; Flathead Lake Biological Station, University of Montana
Thomas S. Bansak, Flathead Lake Biological Station, University of Montana
Bonnie K. Ellis, Flathead Lake Biological Station, University of Montana
Jack A. Stanford, Flathead Lake Biological Station, University of Montana

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Abstract

Loss and degradation of freshwater habitat reduces the ability of wild salmon populations to endure other anthropogenic stressors such as climate change, harvest, and interactions with artificially propagated fishes. Preservation of pristine salmon rivers has thus been advocated as a cost-effective way of sustaining wild Pacific salmon populations. We examine the value of freshwater habitat protection in conserving salmon and fostering resilience in the Kitlope watershed in northern coastal British Columbia—a large (3186 km2) and undeveloped temperate rainforest ecosystem with legislated protected status. In comparison with other pristine Pacific Rim salmon rivers we studied, the Kitlope is characterized by abundant and complex habitats for salmon that should contribute to high resilience. However, biological productivity in this system is constrained by naturally cold, light limited, ultra-oligotrophic growing conditions; and the mean (± SD) density of river-rearing salmonids is currently low (0.32 ± 0.27 fish per square meter; n = 36) compared to our other four study rivers (grand mean = 2.55 ± 2.98 fish per square meter; n = 224). Existing data and traditional ecological knowledge suggest that current returns of adult salmon to the Kitlope, particularly sockeye, are declining or depressed relative to historic levels. This poor stock status—presumably owing to unfavorable conditions in the marine environment and ongoing harvest in coastal mixed-stock fisheries—reduces the salmon-mediated transfer of marine-derived nutrients and energy to the system’s nutrient-poor aquatic and terrestrial food webs. In fact, Kitlope Lake sediments and riparian tree leaves had marine nitrogen signatures (δ15N) among the lowest recorded in a salmon ecosystem. The protection of the Kitlope watershed is undoubtedly a conservation success story. However, “salmon strongholds” of pristine watersheds may not adequately sustain salmon populations and foster social and ecological resilience without more holistic and risk-averse management that accounts for uncertainty and interactions between ecosystem fertility, harvest, climate dynamics, and food web dynamics in the marine and freshwater environments encompassed by the life cycle of the fish.

Key words

conservation; ecology; fisheries management; habitat; Kitlope River; Pacific salmon; resilience; salmon stronghold
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087