Thousands of salmon found dead as Canada drought dries out river

Tens of thousands of dead wild salmon scattered along a creek bed are the latest casualty of a drought that has gripped the province of British Columbia for more than a month and left communities bracing for more devastation.

In a video clip posted to social media, the carcasses of pink and chum salmon are seen piled near the community of Bella Bella.

“It’s just devastating to see this happen. River levels [are] low everywhere right now – not just in Heiltsuk territory. This drought is coast-wide right now,” William Housty, conservation manager with the Heiltsuk Nation, told the Guardian. “We see pre-spawn mortality on [an] annual basis. But never to this degree.”

The video was taken last week by German researcher Sarah Mund, who joined a crew on a stream walk to gauge the health and size of salmon populations returning to spawn.

It’s heartbreaking to see this. It really felt like we were turning the corner on their recovery

William Housty

Wild salmon typically wait for rains as their signal to journey up creeks and rivers – an indicator that water levels will rise and provide easier passage to natal streams.

Housty says a brief afternoon rain 10 days ago, coupled with a high tide, gave the salmon a false signal to start.

No more rain came and the creek dried up, leaving the fish stranded.

“We’ve had one afternoon of rain in more than a month,” he said. “Without the rain and tide, I suspect a many of those salmon would have likely been holding [in the ocean] and waiting. They haven’t had enough time adjust to the reality of this drought.”

One biologist estimated there were 65,000 dead salmon in the creek bed – more than 70% of which failed to spawn.

The life cycle of wild Pacific salmon means they inevitably die after travelling up winding creeks and streams. But their remains, consumed and redistributed by scavenging bears, wolves and birds, provide valuable nutrients for the forest.

Housty says the deaths come at a time when the community had been optimistic about the recovery of both pink and chum populations.

The coaster waters of the Heiltsuk have long home to healthy chum populations, but those numbers have declined in recent years, part of a broader collapse of wild salmon.

Related: Saving Canada’s wild salmon: rescuers pin hopes on fish ladder and salmon cannon

“It’s heartbreaking to see this. It really felt like we were turning the corner on their recovery,” Housty says.

British Columbia’s western coasts have seen little rain over the past five weeks and several regions are in drought level four, which the province says will probably lead to socioeconomic and ecosystem impacts.

“It’s something we have to keep monitoring. I hope this is a rare event,” said Housty. “But we need to be prepared to help the salmon when possible, in any way we can, to avoid something like this again.”