Fine-scale salmon diversity sustains fisheries and supports food security of indigenous communities

A new study from Holly Nesbitt and Jonatahn Moore at Simon Fraser University shows that high biodiversity in salmon fisheries supports the food security of indigenous people.


Instead of analyzing market returns of different financial portfolios, this study examined indigenous fisheries with different “salmon-folios”. Like a well-balanced financial portfolio that can smooth market fluctuations, fisheries that caught a more diverse portfolio of salmon populations and species were more stable through time.

Nesbitt and Moore found that fisheries that could access a higher number of salmon populations had up to 3.8 times more stable catch and 3 times longer fishing seasons than fisheries with access to fewer populations.

For this work, Nesbitt and Moore analyzed 30 years of salmon catch data from indigenous fisheries that span throughout the Fraser River watershed in British Columbia (BC), Canada. The researchers aimed to decompose the degree to which species-level and population-level diversity underpin these aspects of food security.

First Nations fishery
Indigenous chum fishery on the Fraser River near Chilliwack, BC, Canada. Courtesy of the Fraser Valley Aboriginal Fisheries Society.

Hidden salmon biodiversity

One of the surprising findings was that catch stability was mainly driven by hidden population diversity within salmon species, while the number of different salmon species had a smaller effect.

Large salmon watersheds like the Fraser River don’t just contain five species of Pacific salmon such as Chinook and sockeye, but within each of these species there can be dozens of locally-adapted and genetically-unique populations of salmon.

These findings point to an underappreciated ability of watersheds to provide a source of food that is stable from year to year, driven by salmon biodiversity and their habitat that can be 100s of kilometers away. While climate change is making the world increasingly volatile, this research illustrates how protecting existing biodiversity can help dampen this variability and support food security for indigenous peoples. On the other hand, these findings also indicate that loss of salmon biodiversity can increase the volatility of fisheries, even if they are far away.

Indigenous rights and title in Canada

The results from this study may have implications for indigenous rights and title in Canada, especially with the Canadian government’s recent endorsement of the UN declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

41% of First Nations people are food insecure and 91% state that they want to consume more traditional foods like salmon, according to a recent study in BC[i].

“First Nation peoples across BC have been and are forever woven together through the sacred food source of Wild Salmon,” says Bob Chamberlin, Vice President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs and Chairman of the First Nation Wild Salmon Alliance (unaffiliated with the study).

According to First Nations and political leaders, this study provides further evidence for why protection of salmon habitat can pay dividends.

“Protection of the broadest genetic diversity of Wild Salmon stocks will help them provide for our future generations, a component of our Constitutionally-protected Aboriginal Rights,” explains Chamberlin.

Fin Donnelly, a Member of Parliament in Canada (not affiliated with study), states that, “Moore and Nesbitt’s research clearly demonstrates diversity is key, especially when it comes to salmon survival – it verifies the necessity of habitat protection. What it also shows is the need for government to embrace a watershed, or whole systems approach, in decision-making.”

Global implications

The challenge of managing for fish diversity isn’t unique to BC – freshwater fish are globally threatened by industrial development, with severe implications for the people who rely on them. Results from this study can likely be extended to other small-scale fisheries around the world where diversity supports the food security of people who rely on fish for their livelihoods.

About the authors

Holly Nesbitt, lead author of study.

Holly Nesbitt was a Master’s student at Simon Fraser University at the time of the study. She now works for Compass Resource Management – a firm in Vancouver, BC that specializes in decision support for public environmental problems like fisheries management.

Dr. Jonathan Moore is a professor of biological sciences and resource/environmental management at Simon Fraser University. He is also the Liber Ero Chair of Coastal Science and Management.

Funding for this project was from NSERC and the Liber Ero Foundation. The authors thank the First Nations Fisheries Council, the Lower Fraser Fisheries Alliance, and the Fraser Valley Aboriginal Fisheries Society for their interest and support. DFO provided these data.

[i] Chan, L., Receveur, O., Sharp, D., Schwartz, H., Ing, A. & Tikhonov, C. (2011) First Nations Food, Nutrition and Environment Study (FNFNES): Results from British Columbia (2008/2009). Prince George.

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