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A river half empty

As feds and province quarrel over Cheakamus rehabilitation, steelhead recovery swims past

Swirling debate between conservationists, biologists, and anglers over whether to re-stock Cheakamus River steelhead that were decimated in last summer’s Canadian National Railway caustic soda spill has prompted the minister of environment to wade into the furor, exposing the wide policy divide between provincial and federal jurisdictions.

"Introducing steelhead from a hatchery, even if on a onetime basis, may have a lasting impact that is not positive," Environment Minister Barry Penner said in an interview Monday.

"We want to move quickly but we also want to be careful less there be unattended consequences."

Ministry biologists met with Penner this week to present their recommendations about how best to rehabilitate the Cheakamus River.

Brian Clark is the ministry’s Lower Mainland regional manager and says capitalizing this month on what some say is the best steelhead run in 10 years, to recover the river through fish culture is not a good idea.

"Under natural conditions you could have this river recovery start in five years, total recovery in 15 years," he said. "But throw in some hatchery fish and all of a sudden it’s unknown – it may work or may not."

Clark cites a potentially weakened genetic strain, a disbelief that stocking programs could raise population levels faster than natural growth, and long-term ministry guidelines as reasons for not allowing hatchery fish into the river.

"Under provincial policy Cheakamus River is and always was classified as a wild river and under that policy you don’t stock wild rivers," said Clark.

He suggests, instead, enhancing river productivity through improving food supply with nutrient addition that will increase the survival rate of fish. With these methods, the ministry anticipates a return of 40 steelhead for 2010.

Penner said the recently approved Cheakamus hydro electricity water use plan, that adjusts how the facility releases flows from the Daisy Lake dam, will create a positive environment for juvenile fish.

"This is intended to improve the likelihood of fry surviving in the water course," Penner said, "by being allowed to grow to a bigger size before being carried out to the ocean."

Tenderfoot Creek hatchery worker Scott Melville releases pink salmon fry into the Cheakamus River. Photo by Maureen Provencal

But the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which is responsible for salmon populations in the Cheakamus, regards fish culture differently than provincial authorities. DFO’s Tenderfoot Creek hatchery, just north of Squamish, has been restocking chinook salmon into the Cheakamus River for over 20 years. On behalf of the province, DFO used to enhance steelhead – ocean-going trout prized by anglers for their strength and beauty – but that ended in 1992.

Steelhead usually number about 400 in the Cheakamus, but suffered a 95 per cent kill in last August’s caustic soda spill.

Within days of the spill that, according to a ministry assessment, killed every "free-swimming fish occupying the Cheakamus River," or an estimated half a million fish, Tenderfoot hatchery staff were gathering eggs from returning pink salmon that had missed the spill.

"We jumped on it right away because it’s something we could do very quickly to offset some of the losses," the hatchery’s acting manager, Pete Campbell, said last week as he and staff prepared to release 10,000 six-month old pink fry into a Cheakamus back eddy.

"It was one of those things where you either have to do it now or you’re going to be behind the eight ball."

Tenderfoot hatchery has offered the use of its facilities to the province to take advantage of the imminent March return of steelhead unaffected by the spill.

Campbell has heard the arguments against hatchery fish enhancement, but says the five Tenderfoot staff adhere to strict spawning protocols to maintain genetic diversity. Staff choose males and females randomly from different runs and are careful to stagger releases.

"We try to enhance the whole run rather than bits and pieces."

Pink salmon eggs collected last August were raised at a federal Chilliwack River hatchery, which has a better ability to mimic Cheakamus water conditions. Tenderfoot’s ground well water supply is an even 9 degrees Celsius year round.

"To raise the pinks and have them come out at the same time as the natural migration we needed colder water and Chilliwack, with its mixture of well and river water, is the same as Cheakamus."

Environment Minister Penner toured the Chilliwack hatchery last week to better understand pink salmon rehabilitation, but still wasn’t convinced the same could be done for steelhead.

"I’m not an expert… but the answer I got (from ministry biologists) is that pink salmon are considered to be more genetically similar across the southern part of British Columbia than are steelhead," said Penner.

Tenderfoot raised 600,000 pink fry at Chilliwack to .2 grams for release up to three times a week over the next few weeks, directly into the river and also through a sea pen release at the mouth of the Cheakamus.

Longshoremen and security guards volunteer to feed the fry until they reach .5 grams and can be released at night, their natural time to head to the ocean. The extra time in the sea pen will mean increased numbers when one to two per cent of the Pinks return in two years, weighing between two and three pounds and about 45 cm in length.

"We’re getting 94-95 per cent survival rate and in the natural (environment) you might get 20-30 per cent," said Campbell.

The hatchery manager is pragmatic about the $20,000 project, fully financed by CN.

"Some people have the opinion to just let the river be. I’m not saying that wouldn’t work – it could, but we could help and that’s what we do, we help ."

Josh Korman is a Vancouver-based fisheries biologist who has worked on the Cheakamus since 1995 monitoring fish populations. He says the science is uncertain as to whether steelhead enhancement would work, but says the province should take a pro-active approach.

"It’s not a guaranteed benefit but it’s probably the best thing we can do to increase recovery rates."

Tenderfoot Creek hatchery staff release pink salmon fry into sea pens where fry will triple their weight. Photo by Maureen Provencal

Korman said ministry biologists are taking a glass half full approach, being overly optimistic in thinking that the healthy 2006 steelhead run will be enough to regenerate the three age groups affected by the spill.

"It’s just not a wise management assumption to say these animals are super fecund and they’ll have a fast rate of recovery."

Instead, Korman suggests implementing an interim fish culture program immediately, to take advantage of returning Cheakamus steelhead, a program that could be halted if returns indicate a consistent healthy return.

"Genetically, over a short time period, you’re not going to do anything to these fish."

District of Squamish environmental coordinator Chessy Langford, who sits on the committee formed last fall to formulate a Cheakamus recovery program is in agreement with Korman and said she recommended steelhead fish culture enhancement to the committee.

"I look at it as intervention, like intervention on a person with an addiction and getting him or her into rehab," Langford said. "I’m not usually pro-hatchery… but feel at the end of the day the (Cheakamus River) damage is so great that if we look back in five or 10 years and say we didn’t do everything we could have done, well I don’t want to be in that position."

B.C. Wildlife Federation executive director Tony Toth, also agrees with Korman.

"We need to replace that run somehow because if not, then in the Olympic year that’s when we will have an absolutely barren river," Toth said. "Our position is go for it, whether it’s fresh water hatcheries or some other hatcheries, we don’t care, just do it."

David Suzuki Foundation’s Bill Wareham echoes that opinion.

"We should try and rehabilitate the river to a natural ecological condition by putting fish in there," said Wareham, acting director of marine conservation . "With steelhead being in decline and in low numbers generally in the Strait of Georgia, I would say the probability of them finding their own way back and re-colonizing that river and getting the population up to a viable long-term level is a low probability."

But Whistler fishing guide and fly shop owner Brian Niska disagrees.

"I think the best thing we can do is business as usual, let these fish be and create the best habitat for these fish to spawn," he said.

Niska contends that hatchery fish are detrimental to wild stock.

Niska takes out between 70-100 anglers each year at $240/day. "And the thing about wild steelhead is that people will travel a long way to fish for wild steelhead, but won’t really travel for hatchery steelhead as much."

Salmon conservationist and former chair of Vancouver-based Watershed Watch Salmon Society contends the steelhead should be allowed to decline.

"It may be that you have to let whatever happens to the environment begin to express itself rather than go back and try to save steelhead," said Peter Broomhall. "It might be pouring bad money after good to try and save something that might, in fact, be destined to disappear."

In the next week provincial biologists will take the minister of environment’s directives back to the Cheakamus Ecosystem Restoration Steering Committee, which includes representatives from Squamish Nation, CN, District of Squamish, Environment Canada, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

"We’re going to try for consensus there, to convince them that where we’re going with this is the right way to go," said the Ministry of Environment’s Clark. "We are trying to make sure everyone understands the way we’re doing certain things and the intent is to get the Cheakamus recovered, at the same time keeping a natural system."