Skip to content

Is road salt killing salmon in B.C.? Researchers look to study impacts

A group of researchers and community volunteers are teaming up
A team led by University of British Columbia researchers is hoping to find out if road salt in streams could be harming Pacific salmon. (Courtesy Pacific Salmon Foundation)

A group of B.C. university researchers is hoping to find out if road salt in streams could be harming Pacific salmon.

Because Pacific salmon are in decline and all the factors involved aren’t known, the team will investigate the seasonal impact of road salt in more than 20 streams around the Lower Mainland and will also grow baby salmon from eggs in high salt water in the lab.

Even though adult salmon live in salt water, they grow up in fresh water, UBC researcher Chris Wood noted in a release. There’s also evidence that moderate salt levels t a young age have caused mortality and stunted growth, he said.

While there are federal and provincial regulations that set maximum salt levels in streams, but these levels are not routinely monitored.

No one has looked yet at patterns of salt exposure, and with use of road salt in Canada increasing by about 2.5 per cent each year - with many municipalities using thousands of tonnes of salt for winter maintenance each year - the team of researchers and community partners is hopeful they’ll be able to find whether road salt is a factor in the decline of the Pacific salmon population.

Thanks to a Natural Sciences and Engineering Resource Council of Canada grant, UBC researchers Patricia Schulte, Chris Wood and Colin Brauner are joining forces with partners from Simon Fraser University, the British Columbia Institute of Technology and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, along with 13 local streamkeeper organizations to monitor salt levels in streams.

READ MORE: Poaching fears as Fraser River salmon are dumped to rot, even as returns slump

Instruments will be st up to monitor salt levels continuously, with volunteers downloading the data onto their phones every two months, to help the research team discover any patterns as well as ‘pulses’ in winter.

Once they collect that information, the team will take freshly fertilized salmon eggs and raise them in salt ‘pulses’ based on what has been measured in nature during the five-year project.

“We’ll watch them hatch and see how they’re doing, answering questions like, is a short, high spike not a problem if it comes down quickly enough?” Woods said.

There’s ways for the public to help as well - the team says community engagement is key and they’re looking for streamkeeper groups and volunteers to become ‘citizen scientists’ to help.

The public can help too, by using sand instead of salt, using pet-friendly salts that are thought to be less dangerous for animals, including salmon, and if using road salt, to spreed it out evenly, not in clumps.


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Tricia Weel

About the Author: Tricia Weel

I’ve worked as a journalist in community newspapers from White Rock to Parksville and Qualicum Beach, to Abbotsford and Surrey.
Read more