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Squamish Nation threatens province with lawsuit

Penner contradicted by ministry staff, who say steelhead enhancement is no go

Squamish Nation intends to take the provincial ministry of environment to court if steelhead fish culture enhancement does not go forward on the Cheakamus River.

Randall Lewis, Squamish’s land management coordinator, is upset the ministry has turned its back on enhancement for steelhead, which suffered a 95 per cent loss in last summer’s caustic soda spill in the Cheakamus River when a Canadian National Railway tanker split open after a derailment in the canyon.

Minister of Environment Barry Penner, visiting the Tenderfoot Creek hatchery north of Squamish to help release 25,000 pink salmon fry into the Cheakamus on Monday, emphasized a decision has not yet been made as to whether steelhead enhancement will be part of the province’s rehabilitation plan for the river.

"We haven’t made a final decision," Penner said. "We will be going back to the (Cheakamus Ecosystem Restoration) technical committee next week for further discussion."

Penner says ministry has not decided on steelhead enhancement — his staff say they have. Photo by Maureen Provencal

As a member of the CERT committee formed last fall to derive a recovery plan for the Cheakamus, Lewis said the ministry has already made a decision to not go ahead with steelhead enhancement, without consulting committee representatives that include Squamish Nation, CN, District of Squamish, Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and B.C.’s Ministry of Environment.

"We got short-circuited somewhere," Lewis said. "I’m offended and everyone else sitting at the table is offended."

Although Penner said the ministry, which has jurisdiction over steelhead, has not made a decision regarding fish culture, a March 3, 2006 letter from a senior ministry biologist to the technical committee said the province will not take advantage of returning steelhead this month and "does not support fish culture as a restoration tool in the Cheakamus River."

Brian Clark, regional manager for the ministry’s stewardship division, discounted a steelhead program, saying the Cheakamus is designated a wild river and the ministry is committed to a natural recovery. Clark suggested instead "augmentation of neighbouring Mamquam River to provide recreational angling opportunities."

The Environment Ministry’s arguments failed to impress Lewis, who said Squamish Nation has a legal right to healthy steelhead stock.

Citing a breach of rights and entitlement, Lewis said he has recommended to chief and council that the nation’s legal counsel file a writ in provincial court.

"We don’t like playing these cards but when push comes to shove these species are integral to the watershed and have been for thousands of years," Lewis said. "Steelhead were at risk before the dump happened and now we’re talking about a species at risk of extinction because they’re not going to do anything about it."

Squamish Mayor Ian Sutherland is also concerned about the province’s direction.

"I’ve asked our staff to find out more information about why the ministry has said no." Sutherland said. "By all accounts from what our staff and others say it was a pretty good solution to the problem but obviously the ministry of environment felt differently."

Local angler Dan O’Kane, at Tenderfoot Monday with fellow fishermen, is also upset.

"We’re just really sick about it," O’Kane said. "It’s not about the angling… it’s about rebuilding what we have, bringing everything back up to what we had."

Penner deflected concerns.

"I know there’s a divergence of views but at the end of the day I think we should make decisions based on sound science," he said.

Steelhead were stocked on the Cheakamus River from 1980 to 1992 by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Tenderfoot Creek hatchery records show between 15,000 and 75,000 steelhead fry were released annually in Cheakamus tributaries Ashlu River and Shovelnose Channel in those years.

Cheakamus Pink salmon fry head for cover after release into river. Photo by Maureen Provencal

Whether Cheakamus steelhead returning this month are descendents of hatchery steelhead is impossible to verify, said a Nanaimo-based salmon geneticist.

"You can probably find that any small population is going to be genetically related in some sense," said federal biologist Brian Riddell. "You can measure whether animals are brother and sister but you can’t tell if they came from a certain segment of the population unless you sampled it first."

Riddell, DFO’s division head for salmon assessment and freshwater habitat in Nanaimo, said whether hatchery fish are less fit than their wild cousins is a consideration in river recovery situations, citing American studies that report inabilities to differentiate genetic signatures between wild and hatchery offspring.

Steelhead, once classified an ocean-going trout, are currently slotted with salmon, says former federal fisheries biologist Brent Lister. Now an independent consultant in Chilliwack who submitted recommendations to the Cheakamus recovery technical committee, Lister said steelhead’s genetic similarities to rainbow trout and unique lifestyle make it an elusive species to peg.

"They are very complex," Lister said, "because of so many combinations of freshwater life ages (varying from) one year to four years in fresh water before migrating to the ocean where they spend three, even four years."

There are also other concerns about hatchery steelhead.

"They’re not quite the same as wild fish, in terms of their behaviour… and when it comes to things like mating with wild fish there is some evidence that their fitness isn’t as high," Lister said.

DFO’s Riddell said although first and second hatchery fish progeny do show some genetic weaknesses, he noted that federal wild salmon policy considers fish to be wild after three or four generations. He doesn’t envy the provincial biologists’ quandary on what to do about Cheakamus steelhead.

"It’s a very difficult trade off between the chance of having no fish because of very small population size or introducing some genetic change as a result of hatchery practices."

Squamish Nation’s Randall Lewis is clear on what to do.

"It’s not a Mother Nature impact – it’s a manmade impact from a train derailment and 41,000 litres of caustic soda in the Cheakamus," Lewis said. "It’s critical that there be human intervention to do what we need to do for steelhead."