A plan to protect salmon habitat

Fifteen years ago, DFO thought its job was preventing pollution, saving habitat, and protecting fish.

Jack Emberly.

Jack Emberly.

Good news, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the B.C. Ministry of the Environment have collaborated on a proactive catalogue of wild and endangered salmon streams in the lower Fraser Valley.

After decades of abuse by urbanization, development, and logging, there’s a plan to protect and enhance salmon spawning potential.

The document, a review titled, “Wild, Threatened, Endangered and Lost Streams of the Lower Fraser Valley,” assesses the health of 662 streams in the LFV from the Stave River to Hope, and calls on all stakeholders – municipalities, industry, development, and government – to join in “protection and restoration of endangered and threatened streams which still have the potential to produce viable populations of salmon and other species of fish.”

Here’s the bad news. The review is dated 1997. Nothing’s improved, and government today clearly thinks abandoning streams all together is a better idea. B.C. will allow forest clear cutting in areas previously protected by “visual quality objectives” of the Forest and Range Practices Act. It’s no longer necessary for the industry to selective cut or use helicopters to preserve views that only backcountry hikers and Sasquatches will see anyhow. It’s cheaper to carve more roads on the mountain sides of Alouette, Stave, Chehalis, and Harrison lakes.

Relaxing logging practices in remote areas – the result of industry lobbying – will further damage threatened streams, but that fits the Stephen Harper’s plan.

Most streams are “ditches,” according to Fisheries Minister, Keith Ashfield. Municipalities can scoop them out, agriculture dump herbicides in them with impunity. Ashfield has slashed the DFO budget, halved the number of protection officers, and deleted habitat destruction and pollution from the Fisheries Act inside Bill C-38.

Recently, this minister told the Union of Environmental Workers that this ensures prosperity for all Canadians. The act had to be amended “ … to allow new tools to authorize deposits of deleterious substances.”

Fifteen years ago, DFO thought its job was preventing pollution, saving habitat, and protecting fish.

In 1997, LFV streams lost – “paved over or filled in” – were 117 (many salmon-bearing); only 14 per cent remained wild. The rest, 71 per cent, are labelled threatened or endangered.

The steam study blames agriculture, municipalities, and logging.

“We have the worst fisheries minister in 50 years,” says Otto Langer, a coordinator of the stream review, and the DFO biologist who leaked the Harper’s plan to kill the Fish Act.

“Logging is an extremely destructive force. Streams went mad with excessive run off. Suddenly, they had double the silt. I don’t know what there is to protect streams anymore.”

What Langer gets, but Ashfield ignores, is  the importance of marine-derived nutrients – of lakes and streams – in fish productivity. Nutrient supplies during the 1960s, helped produce 20 adult fish for one spawner. By 1990, the correlation was 5-1, and today one spawner yields one returned adult.

In 1997, DFO viewed Harrison Lake as a good nutrient source for sockeye that could be improved with stream enhancement. It’s deep, clean and could remain cool for fish even with climate change.

But, each year there’s less insect and plant food for fry to feed on.

Fisheries and Marine Service Data Report No. 133 (1979) identifies dozens of negatively impacted streams on both lake shores while pointing out that the spawning potential of many could be increased by 50 per cent.

Cogburn Creek is spawning ground for chum, pink, and steelhead, but “logging of the watershed has made this a very unstable stream.” On the lake’s west side, Mystery and Twenty Mile creeks’ spawning gravel supports chum and coho, but “the watershed has been logged, which results in flash floods.”

Weaver Creek was crippled by logging. The spawning channel – most of its sockeye fry rear in Harrison Lake – was created after flash floods scoured out the stream bed.

In Big Silver Creek, Report 133 says, “the watershed is still being logged off at a rapid rate.”

Sockeye, chinook, coho, chum, and pink salmon spawn throughout Big Silver Creek. In 1856, it could be admired from the steamer Umatilla by miners headed to Xa’xtsa, an Indian village at Harrison’s northern end. This was the start of a new road to gold discovered in bars on the Fraser above Yale. Anyone see historical, cultural, or aboriginal reasons to avoid clear cuts?

Ashfield says fish runs with that importance will be protected, but those considered “marginal” won’t.

“Half the streams listed were behind dams, and considered of marginal value for fish,” replies Langer, “but even the marginal producers are vital to the sustainability of wild salmon. You get 50 coho here, or 50 chum there, it all adds up. Fish rest in these streams and clean out their gills. The government has politicized habitat for companies like Enbridge. We’ve lost 50 years of progress.”

A dismal return of Fraser sockeye is expected this year from Washington to Alaska. Langer hopes changes in government will make things better here. Anything’s possible. But, in the interim, for fish and habitat, there is little good news.


Jack Emberly is a retired teacher, local author and environmentalist.