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Eagle count remains low at Brackendale festival

Jonathan Hayward/ The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward/ The Canadian Press

Fewer than 700 eagles showed up at the annual eagle count on Sunday in Brackendale, which calls itself the "Winter Home of the Bald Eagle." Meanwhile, record high numbers of bald eagles are feeding near the Harrison River, according to local eagle-watchers.

The last time Brackendale, which once held a world record for the largest count of bald eagles, saw more than 1,000 bald eagles was in 2007, when 1,757 eagles showed up at the annual Brackendale Winter Eagle Festival and count. This year, observers counted 655 eagles, a slight improvement over last year's count of 627.

Thor Froslev, organizer of the annual festival at Brackendale, said there aren't enough fish, specifically Chum salmon, in the Squamish estuary to attract the predatory birds.

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"For five years it's been under 1,000, and it's unacceptable because there's a food chain that's starving," Froslev said.

For Froslev, the lack of fish isn't only hurting the eagles. "Without the fish, there are no eagles, and with no eagles, there are no people [coming out to Brackendale]"

This year, 60 counters and around 500 showed up at the annual event in Brackendale, which was about the same as the year before. But this was significantly fewer than during the heydays, when thousands would show up, said Froslev.

The depletion of chum salmon in the Squamish region has a lot to do with the large numbers of bald eagles turning up further south at the Harrison River, where there have been strong salmon runs for the past two winters.

Eagles fly south from the north where they spend most of the year feeding on the salmon that spawn in those regions. When the rivers freeze over in the winter, the eagles start migrating south to look for other food sources.

Joanne Chadwick, president of the Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival Society, said more than 5,000 bald eagles were at the Chehalis Estuary of the Harrison River in mid-December last year.

"These birds are such incredible movers, they can fly so far quite easily in the lower mainland and in northern and central B.C.," Chadwick said. "They have gathered here because there's basically nothing to eat anywhere else."

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With the high influx of eagles into the area, the eagle festival at Harrison has become a huge hit.

"This year we had to turn people away because we ran out of space on our [eagle-watching]boat," Chadwick said of the turnout at the annual two-day festival.

Despite the strong pink salmon run this year, Chadwick said there is a lot of uncertainty around any consistency with future salmon runs in the Harrison river.

"Every year we are literally holding our breaths to see what the runs are like," she said. "It's a very scary time, what ever is happening to our salmon."

David Hancock, a B.C.-based biologist and conservationist, said there are three main reasons for the dwindling salmon population: the fish farms, over-harvesting and pollution.

"If we can quit overharvesting the food sources for the salmon, than the salmon can easily rebound again," Hancock said.

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"Ife take out different layers of the food chain, then everything else above it suffers as well, including you," he said. "So the great challenge for humanity, is to make a sustainable world."

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