A run of funding is spawning into the West Coast’s salmon habitat restoration efforts.
The provincial government’s Healthy Watersheds Initiative has allocated $1 million for a Clayoquot Sound Watershed Recovery Initiative that will see the Central Westcoast Forest Society partnering with the Hesquiaht, Ahousaht, and Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations to restore critical salmon populations.
The initiative is expected to create at least 25 jobs and will include technical training and certification for local workers.
“It’s really about trying to increase local capacity as well as restoration,” CWFS executive director Jessica Hutchinson told the Westerly News.
Hutchinson said plummeting salmon returns have reached a crisis point, noting that under 500 Chinook returned to all of Clayoquot Sound last year and suggesting Tranquil River is at 3 per cent of its historic abundance, meaning there’s been a 97 per cent decrease in Chinook salmon within that watershed.
“If we care about salmon at all, we have to care now because time is of the essence and the smaller these stocks get, the less genetic resilience they have, the less ability they’ll have to ever recover,” she said. “There’s many reasons for salmon decline and all of them are important, but habitat is a critical component to their recovery.”
She suggested past logging practices that occurred between the 1960s and 1980s is largely to blame for the region’s significant habitat deterioration.
“We’re still playing catch up on fixing those past mistakes and we have decades of work ahead of us at this pace to try and tackle even the key watersheds,” she said. “Clayoquot Sound is not a pristine area. It was victim to industrial scale logging through the mid-century.”
She said salmon are a keystone species and are integral to the West Coast’s ecosystem, communities and culture.
“Eventually, if things continue this way, our stocks will collapse and there will be less hope than there even is today,…It’s a pretty dire situation we’re in right now in terms of wild Pacific salmon in Clayoquot Sound,” she said. “It’s not good and it doesn’t get the attention that it deserves despite this species being so valuable, so iconic, so ingrained in our culture and our way of life. We’re not investing in its recovery like we should be. $1 million is an amazing contribution and it’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not even going to scratch the surface.”
She said the amount of work that needs to be done makes it tough to prioritize specific projects over others.
“We’re always in this terrible scenario of having too little money to deal with the problem at hand and having to make a decision on which watershed is the most important, where to start,” she said. “The problem is so huge and unfortunately, even though $1 million is a significant amount of money, it pales in comparison to the work that’s ahead of us.”
She added that the Clayoquot Sound Watershed Recovery Initiative’s priorities have been set by the partnering First Nations for habitat restoration in each of their respective territories.
“We couldn’t do one step of this process without their support and without our close working relationship and partnership,” she said.
“These are their lands and they, more than anyone, are invested in the restoration and in the future vision for their land. We are just one part that’s trying to help this vision be realized and help with the work that’s needed to revitalize declining wild salmon populations in their traditional territories.”
Maaqutusiis Hahoulthee Stewardship Society stewardship biologist and guardian program manager Danny O’Farrell told the Westerly that Ahousaht will be working with the CWFS to rebuild and improve habitat within the Bedwell River and Atleo River watersheds.
“Presently all salmon populations within Clayoquot Sound are at critical levels. The hope is to provide as much habitat as we can for all species of salmonids in hopes they return,” he said.
He said the work will involve building side channels at both Atleo and Bedwell to increase spawning and rearing habitat for Chinook, Chum and Coho.
“The Atleo River probably was one of the biggest Chum producing systems in Clayoquot Sound and the numbers have dwindled significantly,” he said, suggesting the river saw about 70,000 salmon during its peak years, but now sees roughly 250-500 Chum returning each year.
“The Atleo River is one of Ahousaht’s main food fish rivers for collecting Chum for smoking. The idea behind restoring the Atleo is bringing the Chum population back up to a level where there could be a terminal fishery potentially, but it’s more or less just increasing the capacity of having more food fish available”
Ahousaht has also received $180,000 from the Healthy Watersheds Initiative for a separate project to restore the Anderson Creek watershed to provide habitat for Chum salmon.
O’Farrell said that project will include the installation of a ‘Hatchery in a Box’ facility first developed by the Okanagan Nation Alliance.
“The hatchery in a box is essentially a small sea can that’s going to be within the Ahousaht community,” he explained.
He said the project will include taking brood stock from other rivers and raising them in the hatchery, putting some into Anderson Creek and some into the Atleo to build both populations back up.
He said both projects will be underway this summer, but added more funding will be needed in the future, echoing Hutchinson’s comments about the current funding not being enough to solve the problem.
“It’s a band-aid really,” he said.