My first interaction with the Salish Sea was from several mountainous kilometres away up in St’atm’ic Nation Territory near the Bridge River and its headwaters, the Bridge Glacier. I was six months old when my Mother and my Granny carried me down to waters that would eventually flow into the Fraser River and out to the Salish Sea. My Granny, the daughter of a gold mine engineer, grew up as a settler in the Bridge River Valley. This place has always felt like home for Granny, and she has since kept my family connected to the area.
On walks or drives into town, Granny would sometimes mention the receding glaciers on the mountains closest to our house. She would talk about the way the man-made Downton Lake had noticeably changed the temperature of the whole valley bottom. There was anxiety in her voice when she talked about these changes and I grew into that anxiety as I learned to pick up on the unrelenting environmental shifts I’ve witnessed over my lifetime. There was the tree-killing pine beetle, the inconsistent berry crop, snowpack disappearing earlier and earlier. There was the summer we couldn’t leave or get any food into the valley because both roads in and out were burning due to wildfires. Now every summer I worry about these more frequent fires catching up with my Granny’s 89 year old lungs, which are already at risk from asthma and their fair share of cigarettes.
I moved out to these Unceded Coast Salish Territories in part to be closer to the Bridge River Valley and my Granny. I can’t be up in the mountains as much as I’d hoped when I first moved here, but spending time in and around the Salish Sea I am reminded of the health of the ocean is tied to mountains that flow down into them. The Bridge River is one of the few glacial rivers to feed the Fraser River, and it is already experiencing major stress from our human-induced climate crisis. This has significant implications for the future of wild salmon in BC.
The Bridge Glacier has flattened by 75% and has receded as much as 600 meters in a single season. These hydrological changes quite literally flow out of the glacier, affecting downstream aquatic environments and eventually the marine environment. The recession and deflation of glaciers like the Bridge affect salmon in two distinct ways: changing stream velocity and changing stream temperatures. Initially, as glaciers shrink, they produce larger volumes of water passing through rivers to the sea. Salmon can only make it upstream at a maximum velocity of 2.4 meters per second (although that varies by species). As glaciers around BC melt, more water will be pushed through small river channels, potentially creating a situation where salmon are unable to make it up stream. As we head into the second half of this century, dying glaciers will result in inconsistent flow downstream. Water regimes, the prevailing pattern of water flow, will no longer primarily depend on glaciers, but instead on inconsistent rainfall, unstable snowpack, and groundwater.
The second way melting glaciers like the Bridge will affect our downstream environments and salmon is through raising the temperature of salmon streams. As these glaciers continue to melt, the temperature of salmon streams will increase due to the lack of cold glacial water feeding into them. Most salmon cannot withstand temperatures above 15.6 degrees celsius in rivers during spawning. Glacial water is critical for keeping the temperatures cold enough for the fish to return to spawn.
As we follow the rivers out to sea, continued pressures on Fraser River salmon will reverberate around the Salish Sea. Pressures on salmon impact Indigenous food sovereignty, orcas, seals and sea lions, economic livelihoods, and our identity as British Columbians.
When I spend time in the Bridge River Valley now, I feel my Granny’s anxiety. I feel a loss in knowing that I am potentially the last generation to know the Valley as she did, to be able to rely on the fish, and forests, and water, and berries, and mountains. I know that the health of the oceans, and the health of iconic species like salmon, is connected by the thread of rivers to these mountains. When I think about the future livability of our coastal communities, of my cultural stake in this changing world, about how economic livelihoods will look in the future, and the non-human beings around me, I know there is still so much to fight for.
We know that, however hard it looks, we still have a chance and a responsibility to protect places like the Bridge River Valley from the worst impacts of climate change. If we choose radical action, we can limit the climate crisis to only 1.5 degrees of warming. This means only about 18% of additional glacial loss, instead of the 36% -47% glacial loss by the end of the century in a business as usual scenario, as predicted by IPCC scientists . It is heartbreaking to witness the impacts of the climate crisis on the region’s local waterways but we can create change by taking bold action now to combat the worst effects of this crisis.
For example, one way is to send a letter to Premier Horgan demanding he stop subsidies for fracked gas which directly contribute to increased emissions and the environmental fall out we are witnessing across the Salish Sea Bioregion. For the health of these mountains, glaciers, rivers, and oceans we can no longer continue with business as usual.