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for people who care about the West

A community copes with record low salmon returns

On the Fraser River, faltering salmon populations have impacted tribes and urban economies.


The Fraser River in British Columbia, Canada, is one of the most productive salmon rivers in North America. Its basin is also home to two-thirds of British Columbia’s population and a hub of economic activity, including a major port and other industries.

But now, its salmon are in decline. Last year’s salmon return was a record low, with only 853,000 fish. This year, the Pacific Salmon Commission closed the Fraser River to commercial salmon fishing, due to low forecasted returns and poor river conditions. While salmon once comprised 60 percent of fishery profits, they now account for only 20 percent of the fish caught and sold from the river.

Photographer Michael O. Snyder and journalist Courtney Sexton traveled north in 2016 to capture the stories of interwoven stakeholders in the health of the Fraser River and its fish. There they met fishermen whose jobs are in flux, learned about the varied opinions on expanding the port, and talked to First Nations people who have relied on salmon as part of their culture and sustenance for thousands of years. They also accompanied conservation teams seeking solutions to wild salmon decline.

Organizations like the Raincoast Conservation Foundation have been studying juvenile salmon populations in the estuaries where the river mixes with the Salish Sea. Their research could help untangle how young salmon activity is related to the survival of adult salmon and how to reduce impacts from future industrial projects. — Brooke Warren

Captions by Courtney Sexton