Photos of emaciated grizzly bears and the rescue of a distressed tropical turtle off B.C.’s coast have ocean watchers worried about the damage climate change is doing to local ecosystems.
Rolf Hicker, a wildlife photographer and tour guide based in Port McNeill for the past two decades, recently posted photos to Facebook which show a malnourished grizzly sow with two cubs along the shore of Knight Inlet. The disturbing images were shared around the globe.
Hicker said he’d never seen a grizzly in such dire shape. He is concerned they are suffering from the effects of climate change, particularly poor runs for salmon, a critical food source for the bears.
“I was shocked,” said Hicker, a photographer for 35 years who runs tours by boat. “I’ve seen a lot in my life. I’ve been all over the planet. I shot a lot of wildlife in Africa and have seen the impact of mass tourism and all of that. But I’ve never seen animals like this, with their rib cages out.”
Federal Fisheries scientists said last year that Pacific salmon and their ecosystems are already responding to warming trends and marine heat waves.
Meantime, air temperatures over B.C. and Yukon have reached record highs in recent years, and in Yukon have risen twice as fast as in southern Canada. Temperatures were especially high from 2015 to 2018, and coincided with a marine heat wave, the scientists said.
Last month, First Nation and union leaders said the federal and provincial governments need to step in to help fishermen through the worst commercial fishing season in 50 years as runs have plummeted for all species and in all regions.
Hicker said he has been bombarded with emails from people accusing him of digitally altering his images and of spreading “fake news” about climate change, he said.
“I get so much hate mail right now — you wouldn’t believe it,” Hicker said. He has also drawn criticism from people in government, fish-farm operators and other tour firms who say he’s hurting business, he said.
“I don’t care because I think about my business over the next 20 years, and not just about tomorrow,” Hicker said. “I think about my kids. I think about other people. If we don’t point those things out, how should change ever be made?”
Hicker said he will leave it to scientists to explain why the grizzlies aren’t eating properly, but said he believes a first step in helping whales and bears find more salmon is to ban controversial open-pen salmon farms in B.C., which critics allege spread disease, viruses and sea lice.
Last month, a mass salmon die-off at a Newfoundland open-net pen fish farm triggered concern over environmental risks and transparency issues facing the industry. Northern Harvest Sea Farms, owned by the Norwegian company Mowi, attributed the deaths to an extended period of high water temperatures, between 17 and 21 degrees Celsius.
Dr. Brian Hunt, a professor at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of B.C., said he was “shocked” by Hicker’s grizzly photos, which are “an indication that everything is not right” with the ecosystem.
“It’s very concerning to see this — an incredible animal at the top of the food chain — that’s clearly struggling,” he said.
Hunt said scientists are keeping a close eye on low sockeye returns on the Fraser River and on the potential return of “the blob”, a popular term for a huge patch of warmer-than-normal water in the northern Pacific Ocean. The blob first appeared in 2013 and after a two year hiatus made a return in October, 2018.
“We’ve seen warming again over this past summer and so there’s potential for this to happen again, though it’s not a sure thing,” Hunt said.
He said warmer ocean conditions also explain how a tropical sea turtle wound up in distress in cold water near Port Alberni this week.
The male olive ridley sea turtle was found by passersby on Sept. 30. It registered a dangerously low body temperature of 11 C when it was rescued, well below the species’ average 20 C. It is now recovering at the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre.
Warm ocean temperatures this past summer also brought plenty of sunfish and warm-water plankton species to B.C., Hunt said.
Dr. Ken Ashley, director of the Rivers Institute at the B.C. Institute of Technology, said there were similar concerning reports of starving grizzlies in 1999, when the salmon run in Rivers Inlet hit a 50-year low.
“When that run collapsed, there had been reports of starving grizzly bears up there wandering into First Nations villages looking for something to eat,” Ashley said. “Cubs weren’t leaving their mothers until they were three years old — unheard of things.”
Ashley said salmon habitat is degraded, hatchery fish have complicated genetics, fish harvest has been too high, and hydroelectric plants with no upstream and downstream fish passage have contributed to the loss of salmon.
“On top of that, we have climate change, the “blob” and invasive species — I put fish farms under that category — and then pollution, the ocean plastics,” Ashley said.
There are solutions, including replacing gillnets with more selective fishing techniques, restoring freshwater habitats and protecting them from industry, and, long-term, reaching carbon neutrality to slow the acidification of oceans and warming of streams, he said.
“It’s death by a thousand cuts and so it’s repair by a thousand cuts,” Ashley said.
With files from Stephanie Ip and The Canadian Press