Jack Emberly.

Along the Fraser: Streamkeepers keep conversation about salmon going

There’d be a dreadful outcry if anyone suggested obliterating the Tower of London.’

There’d be a dreadful outcry if anyone suggested obliterating the Tower of London. Yet a unique and wonderful species of animal can be snuffed out like a candle without more than a handful of people raising a voice in protest – Gerald Durrell.

B.C. watched wild salmon edge closer to extinction in 2017 knowing government was largely to blame. Many protested, but more were silent.

In June, Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc announced an end to the Salmon Enhancement Program without consulting streamkeepers, or DFO’s own community advisors.

DFO director Rebecca Reid issued termination letters to 26 biologists and engineers of the restoration unit. Streamkeepers depend on them. Over 1,500 streams improved in the past 17 years were abandoned.

Children in school salmonid programs wrote Dear Minister LeBlanc letters.

I asked MP Terry Beech, LeBlanc’s parliamentary secretary, why the salmon program was targeted? He said to save money and because the program was not a national program – only a B.C. one.

West Coast MPs, thinking re-election, urged the minister to change his mind, as did the B.C. Cattlemen’s Association, which has worked with streamkeepers for decades. Ranchers told LeBlanc we can protect agricultural lands and still enhance fish habitat.

In the 11th hour, he pardoned the Salmon Enhancement Program.

This fall, B.C. Fish and Wildlife euphemistically said the famous Thompson River steelhead were in “a state of extreme conservation concern.”

William Shatner wrote the minister to act immediately. Back in 2012, the Cohen Commission Report urged DFO to jump start the 2005 Wild Salmon Policy. In 2017, it launched a plan, not to act, but “consult” with the public into 2022.

It’s not just steelhead, says Mike Ramsay, of B.C. Fisheries.

This fall he told me the Status for Endangered Wildlife in Canada would add 20 sub-species of sockeye to its endangered list.

What took so long?

In 2008, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature declared one quarter of world sockeye neared extinction, most in the Skeena and Fraser rivers.

The union identified causes. Mixed-stock fishing, and habitat deterioration are factors government could fix.

In May, while LeBlanc pledged $1.2 million to the Pacific Salmon Foundation to explain why killer whales can’t find chinook to eat, I asked him to return monitoring and protection to 40 spawning streams that produce 80 per cent of Fraser salmon. He said it should be done. I asked if he’d return clout to the Fish Act.

“Yes,” he promised.

He can’t. The teeth – Section 35 – outlawed harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat. It doesn’t apply to fish farms or pipelines.

The union says LeBlanc could save salmon by shifting fishing from coastal and lower river reaches to upper reaches to avoid capturing too many small populations, addressing the impacts of hatcheries and spawning channels which spread disease, and expanding monitoring.

This summer, I tried in vain to get spawning numbers from DFO before doing my own counts, and talking to old-timers who know their local streams.

In 1997, a Federal Auditor General’s Report told the DFO to better monitor “small stock” streams to save the resource. Shame.

In 2013, a memorandum of understanding between DFO and the National Energy Board passed Fish Act enforcement on pipelines to the NEB.

Last fall, NEB’s James Stevenson, told me NEB – not the DFO – now reviews pipeline construction “to determine if impacts shall occur.”

It applies Fisheries Protection Provisions – industry-designed rules – that supersede Section 35, which could have imposed heavy penalties for placing plastic mats over spawning gravel.

In September, Kinder Morgan installed six in B.C., one in Alberta – ironically to “mitigate” – harm to spawning salmon.

NEB says they’re an allowable construction strategy. It’s just that Kinder Morgan missed the “window of time” before spawning began.

The mats were removed in December. We don’t know if a fine will be imposed, but the NEB’s have been tiny compared to $1 million or more under the old Fish Act laws today are written for corporations.

Pink salmon, always abundant, didn’t show up last year. Langley streamkeeper Nat Cicuto says his prized Yorkson Creek coho haven’t, either.

Streamkeepers Doug Stanger and Joe Jurcich of Maple Ridge were similarly disappointed. This fall, they told me they were blocked from counting a few spawners in Coho Creek by trees dropped with city approval.

Streamkeepers weren’t consulted then, or when the city re-channeled Paradise Creek on 232nd Street. After I complained, Maple Ridge brought local volunteers back into the picture, explaining bio-engineering details they’ve incorporated in a creek the province says isn’t fish-bearing, but provides “nutrients” – insect feed – to Alouette River salmon.

“I’d give them a C-plus, so far,” Cicuto told me. “For a B, they’d have to consult earlier, do annual water testing for road salts and oil, and share results.”

In 2018, Cicuto wants to know who decided Paradise Creek isn’t a real stream. He wants us all to hold government accountable before salmon become extinct.

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

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