Garbage has become an alternate source of protein for eagles. (Contributed)

Along the Fraser: food banks for eagles in crisis?

DFO estimated five million Fraser River salmon would return in 2019, but only 600,000 did.

In an emergency, you change your behaviour – Greta Thunberg (COP25)

It’s November. I’m driving east towards the Harrison River to count eagles feeding on dead salmon along the Fraser River and talk to wildlife biologist David Hancock at the Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival near Agassiz.

Fifteen years ago, he put a camera in an eagle’s nest with chicks. The video went viral.

Hancock says eagles will be hungry this year, possibly from now on as salmon numbers decline.

DFO estimated five million Fraser River salmon would return in 2019, but only 600,000 did, and only three per cent headed beyond the Big Bar Landslide managed to spawn.

The blockage occurred in 2018.

DFO waited too long to remove it.

They’re still waiting.

READ ALSO: Will there be salmon five years from now?

In the Lower Mainland, streamkeepers report dismal returns.

Doug Stanger of ARMS searched in vain for chum in Millionaire Creek, a tributary of the Alouette River that’s always produced thousands.

“It’s the worst year in my memory,” Stanger told me.

We knew a crisis was coming. In October, DFO reported chum returns this year of less than one million – below a critical threshold and the lowest on record since the 1980s.

DFO ruled that the Johnstone Strait mixed stock commercial fisheries will be closed.

Too little, too late.

The first stop in my nature pilgrimage is Nicomen Slough, a tidal ribbon between Dewdney and Deroche. The line of vehicles along the roadside is the longest in 20 years, families with children witnessing nature’s bond between salmon and raptors.

Morris Valley Road is near Harrison Bay and Kilby Park. I gaze across Chehalis Flats, an expansive marsh fronting the Harrison River. It’s the most important chum spawning area in B.C., but there are few salmon, dead or alive, today.

Weaver Creek Spawning Channel, built in 1965, is my next stop. It was built to mitigate the effects of recreation and logging on the creek.

No one thought to protect a prolific producer of several species until logs, scouring the creek, destroyed millions of eggs.

For years, the channel registered 75,000 sockeye, chum, and pink. The gates were later closed at 30,000 to avoid crowding.

In the ’90s, I saw chum spawn in ditches. So many salmon then, nobody worried that their eggs died when those ditches dried up.

Few salmon returned to Weaver Creek channel in 2019.

“We saw 1,700 sockeye,” a local hatchery worker told me.

“But,” he added, “it was a low brood year four years ago, so that was expected.”

Returns for chum were even worse, at about 3,000. But DFO records of chum in the channel from 1965 to 1978 (when counting and stream monitoring stopped) averaged 25,000.

Tapadera Estates, a gated resort area, is one of several festival venues to “celebrate the wonders of nature” with educational displays and viewing stands down well-groomed walkways.

At least 5,000 birds are perched in trees or sitting on sandbars.

Hancock calls the Harrison “the bald eagle capital of the world.”

As many as 30,000 show up every year through the Fraser Valley.

About 500 pairs live here all year, Hancock says.

“The others are transients that fly south when northern lakes and streams freeze and food is scarce.”

There’s a lot of competition for the few carcasses available here now. When they’re eaten, says Hancock, the eagles move to garbage dumps.

“About 75 years ago, we started diminishing our creeks and rivers. At the same time, garbage became a substitute for dead salmon. Eagles fly from one dump to the next all the way to Alaska.”

Garbage has become an alternate source of protein for eagles, one that might not last as cities stop dumping organic waste in landfills and recycle it inside buildings.

“It’s bizarre,” says Hancock. “We’re forcing everyone to separate garbage so we can compost it to soil, and in the process we’ve taken away another food source. We’re about to have a disaster.”

Hancock says we’ve been slow to recognize the problem. He’s talking to government agencies about solutions that will require changes in attitude and focused will power.

Food banks for eagles?

That will require careful planning, but abuse and neglect of habitat make it our responsibility.

Since the 1970s, DFO has abandoned the monitoring, protection, and enhancement of salmon streams while promoting fish farming despite the evidence that effluent and disease are killing wild fish.

We’ve overfished and polluted oceans to the point that there’s more plastic in them than oxygen.

This year – after one of the worst salmon returns in history – the Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society on Vancouver Island stepped up for eagles.

“We’re feeding a lot of them,” caregiver Jo Stiles told Black Press.

Bears are starving, too.

Conservation officers say, “don’t feed them.”

In the Lower Mainland, by July, they’d killed 51 hungry animals – the simple solution to another emergency.

But that’s another story.

Jack Emberly is a retired teacher, local author and environmentalist.

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