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CN’s Cheakamus River recovery plan finalized

Biologists expect 250,000 fish within five years

An estimated 500,000 fish were killed in minutes when sodium hydroxide was spilled in the Cheakamus River last year. Canadian National Railways hopes to bring back half that many fish in five years.

CN presented its comprehensive Cheakamus River recovery plan at an Aug. 17 open house at Totem Hall in Squamish. The 94-page report released last week took one year to complete and followed recommendations from two advisory committees comprised of federal, provincial, district and first nations representatives.

Clear recovery target numbers were presented for nine species of fish decimated by last summer’s CN train derailment and spill of 41,000 litres of sodium hydroxide into the Cheakamus River. Although habitat was unscathed and the river flushed itself of sodium hydroxide within eight hours half a million fish were killed in a matter of minutes in the spill that occurred 15 kilometres north of Squamish on Aug. 5, 2005.

Formed at CN’s request and with a mandate to provide a recovery plan for the river, the Cheakamus Ecosystem Restoration Technical Committee is recommending a combination of habitat and hatchery enhancement measures to bring back population numbers for Chinook, coho, and pink salmon, as well as cutthroat, char, stickleback, sculpin and lamprey.

With an emphasis on clearing channels and streams clogged from debris left by a 2003 flood that reached 100-year high water levels, it is hoped that 160,000 Chinook salmon will return to the Squamish watershed within five years. Coho salmon should reach 97,000 within three years. A target of 400 was set for steelhead, the prized angling fish that caused a contentious scientific debate between government and independent biologists over how best to encourage population growth.

Only about 50 people attended the open house, which included poster displays, a short film and a power point presentation that highlighted key findings and recommendations.

Squamish Councillor Patricia Heintzman said she came looking for a concrete plan of action.

“What I’m hoping to see is real measured progress not only in the planning but in the doing, and in the few things I’ve seen so far it seems like the doing is happening,” she said.

Peter Frederiksen, hired by CN through Triton Environment Consultants to oversee recovery efforts, said work began last month on clearing flood debris. A protective berm bridge and woody debris structures have recently been installed north of Squamish at mile 49 channel to deal with infilled pools and rearing channels. Frederickson said timing is key to successful rehabilitation.

“There is a small window of time when there aren’t eggs in the gravel and when water is not too high so that we can actually get into the river and do the work we want to do,” he said. Crews that included local First Nations removed existing fish from the area in advance of digging for rearing ponds that will provide haven for coho, chum and pink salmon juveniles.

Steelhead being raised at a Fraser Valley hatchery will be released next spring at an undisclosed location to help boost numbers. Other species like sculpin and lamprey may also require assistance, the report suggests.

CN’s Norman Pellerin said consensus was a major issue in producing the recovery plan.

“Everybody has their own favorite project and their own agenda,” said Pellerin, CN’s vice-president, environment. “And the biggest challenge was having these people agree that OK, these are the targets, these are the priorities, these are the long-term objectives. But once you got around the differences in approach and technology and focused on targets and objectives it was very successful.”

In a question and answer session Pellerin and another CN vice-president, Tom Dalziel, were peppered with questions from the audience about the railway’s safety procedures.

John Buchanan, a 23-year BC Rail veteran, asked if CN performs comprehensive post-trip train inspections. CN pointed to its 50 per cent reduction in railway accident rates nationally in the past year through strengthened safety regulations, but couldn’t explain the continuing spate of accidents in B.C.

Greg Wilson, a Ministry of Environment biologist, received a lot of criticism in the past year for the ministry’s initial habitat-only steelhead enhancement plan. At Thursday’s open house he commended the speedy response of locals in the first few hours of the 2005 spill and commented on lessons learned.

“Rivers are complicated places to work with,” he said. “We (the scientific community) don’t know as much as we probably think we know and what we do know is we don’t know everything.”