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Where have all the salmon gone?

The Humber River was teeming with this year's run. But salmon populations are declining elsewhere in Canada, leading many to question whether that will always be the case.

The decline is particularly shocking because a healthy run was expected. In 2005, nearly 9 million sockeye spawned in the Fraser River. Two years later, an estimated 130 million young salmons, known as smolts, migrated to the ocean and millions were expected back to spawn this year. They never came.

The crisis isn’t restricted to the Fraser River. The fishing of wild salmon is a $185 million a year industry in British Columbia. But salmon catch along B.C.’s coast fell from 30,000 tonnes (33,000 tons) in 1998 to 5,000 tonnes (5,500 tons) last year. Commercial fishing is under threat. Worst off are native populations, who depend on salmon fishing for the little income they make.

An estimated 142 salmon populations along the B.C. coast have already been wiped out, never to return, according to the David Suzuki Foundation, a leading B.C.-based environmental group.

So what is happening? Some scientists suspect salmon farms are infesting smolts with sea lice. Salmon in these farms are packed in pens, creating a breeding environment for the parasites. The lice then cling to passing young salmon and burrow through their skin, consuming muscle and blood. In some coastal areas of B.C., sea lice are responsible for killing 80 percent of young salmon, the Sukuzi foundation estimates. (Watch a video about the repercussions of the salmon industry pushing into Chilean Patagonia.)

Others point to the impact of global warming on ocean waters, to pollution and to the paving over of habitat. But a recent report, by the Raincoast Conservation Foundation and academics from the University of California, points the finger at overfishing.

The report blames the Canadian government’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans for consistently overestimating the number of salmon and consistently allowing too much commercial and recreational fishing.

Canadians have seen this movie before. In 1992, one of the most abundant populations of cod in the world virtually disappeared off the Atlantic coast of Newfoundland. An industry that was the wealth of a province for 500 years was suddenly shut down, throwing 40,000 people out of work. It remains closed today.

Blame for the cod collapse was cast far and wide, from a jump in the cod-eating seal population to a change in the Atlantic Ocean’s ecosystem. But overfishing and a government slow to act were clearly part of the problem.

History, Canadians fear, is repeating itself.