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Emaciated grizzly bears in Canada spark greater concerns over depleted salmon population

Posted at 4:57 AM, Oct 03, 2019

With hibernation fast approaching, a grizzly bear family is spotted searching for fish near the shores of Canada's Knight Inlet. They're emaciated.

The heartbreaking images, captured by a Canadian photographer, have sparked concern from wildlife observers. They worry whether the bear and two cubs will even make it through hibernation.

It also shines light on another victim of the climate crisis and the depletion of wild salmon population.

Knight Inlet is a prime tourist spot in British Columbia, Canada for grizzly bear viewing. Visitors from all over the world come to take in the wilderness and admire the wildlife.

The Mamalilikulla First Nation has been monitoring the bears, specifically those in Hoeya Sound and Lull Bay, for several years.

"They have drastically changed within a couple months," Jake Smith, guardian watchman manager for the Mamalilikulla First Nation, told CNN. "The bears are in trouble."

Smith said when he saw the images on Friday, he knew he had to try to help. The bears' main food source, salmon, is at an all time low in the area. Commercial fishermen in British Columbia are calling this the worst salmon season in nearly 50 years.

In August, a report released by the Fisheries and Oceans Canada noted that Canada's climate is warming twice as fast as the global average, drastically impacting the salmon's ecosystems. The report also cited marine heatwaves, increased floods and droughts as causing greater stress on the fish.

Smith arranged for 500 salmon, donated by A-Tlegay Fisheries Society on Vancouver Island, to be distributed along the shorelines that the grizzlies frequent. Volunteers on Sunday piled the fish in ice chests and delivered them by boat to the area. Smith said bears were present and started eating the fish right away.

"We were about 30 feet away from them," Smith said. "A little grizzly looked up at us and the mother bear came out to get the fish."

While this is only a small step to help the bears, the First Nation will now continue to monitor the bears for any updates.

Causes of decline in wild salmon population

The wild salmon population has been steadily declining in the British Columbia area over the past few years. Just last month, advocates for commercial fishing asked the government for disaster relief to help the industry.

"The impacts of this climate change disaster has been coast wide," said Joy Thorkelson, president of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers' Union, at a press conference in September.

The warmer weather has impacted the temperature of the water and drastically impacted the salmon run this year, according to CNN news partner CTV.

Another factor for the wild salmon population loss is the open-net fish farming that critics say are spreading disease and pollution in the water.

"Everywhere in the world where there is salmon farming you have a decline in the wild salmon population," said biologist Alexandra Morton , who has been researching the effects of farming for the past 30 years. This type of farming allows for waste to be added back into the water and exposes the wild salmon population to viruses, according to Morton.

In December, the British Columbia government along with First Nations created a plan to transition out of open-net farming by 2023 so that the wild salmon population can recover. The Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance has defended open-net farming as environmentally sustainable, calling plans to phase out open-net farming "a reckless policy, not grounded in science."

Bears forced to travel far for food

Rolf Hicker, a wildlife photographer, took the images of the thin bears while giving a boat tour. He posted them on Facebook on September 23.

"We saw this sow with her two little ones a couple of weeks ago and then we saw her again only a few days ago," he posted. "I have no idea how she would make it through the winter without salmon."

More than half of Canada's grizzly population lives in British Columbia, and their average weight is 220 to 880 pounds, according to the Nature Conservancy of Canada . They forage for berries and plants, but salmon is their main food source.

Hicker told CNN that not all of the bears that he's seen are this thin, but the majority are not healthy.

Smith and Hicker said the grizzlies are starting to relocate and island hop to other areas, including Vancouver Island, looking for food.

"Provincial biologists cannot confirm why the bears appear to be in poor shape," said a statement from the province's Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development.

"If salmon runs in the area are lower than expected, this will have an added effect and bears may have to travel further to find food."

Grizzly bears hibernate for five to seven months each year and live off the fat built up during the summer and fall months, according to the National Park Service . If female bears go into hibernation leaner than normal, this might impact how many cubs she has, according to Parks Canada.

"Grizzlies are not native to Vancouver Island," said Hicker. " They are spending all their energy swimming to go to another location. They are being forced to do that for food."

Swanson Island, about an hour boat ride from Knight Inlet, is another location where grizzlies are showing up, Smith said.

"They were approaching our camps, and we are seeing them in areas we rarely ever see bears," Rick Snowdon, owner of Spirit of The West, told CNN. He takes tourists to Swanson Island for camping trips and kayaking.

Snowdon said while they haven't had a negative interaction with the bears, they have had to emphasize to guests to use caution.

"I've seen several grizzles with cubs," he said. "They definitely looked lightweight."

The natural resources ministry told CNN they will be meeting with First Nations on Thursday to discuss the situation.

Canada isn't the only area facing issues with wild salmon populations. This summer, the heat wave in Alaska resulted in scientist finding hundreds of dead salmon due to heat stress. The water temperatures broke records as it rose to 81 degrees in July in Cook Inlet.