The Salmon River Restored? Yeah, but let’s take a meeting on that first.

Story by Mark Hume with Photography by Mike Gage

The Salmon River on Vancouver Island, rises as snow melt in Strathcona Provincial Park, and runs more than 80 kilometres before it hits the ocean, near the small town of Sayward.

With the headwaters protected by the oldest park in British Columbia, and the lower river now surrounded by healthy, second growth forests, the Salmon has been coming in for a lot of attention from fisheries experts in recent years, because of its amazing potential.

Starting in the mid-70s, the province began a series of projects aimed at improving habitat. Impassable log jams that were blocking fish access to several small tributaries were busted open, long stretches of the mainstem were fertilized to replace nutrients lost when salmon runs declined, and in one key event in 1976 a large boulder was blasted out of a canyon where it had halted upstream migration.
By breaking up the boulder 12 kilometres of prime spawning habitat was opened up to salmon, trout and steelhead.

The Salmon River Diversion

That seminal event allowed spawning fish to reach the base of a BC Hydro diversion dam that in the late 1950s had been built upstream of the impassable canyon, to direct water to a nearby power generating system. But the arrival of fish soon faced the Crown corporation with a problem, because a few salmon, as they will, found a way to slip past the dam. At about the same time, steelhead were stocked upstream, allowing the upstream waters to become colonized, although the population remained small.

Over the years provincial fisheries managers, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Sayward Fish and Game Club have pushed BC Hydro to fully open the upper 40-plus kilometres of river to salmon.

In the late 1980s, with some success, a smolt screen was installed on the diversion canal, to redirect fish back into the Salmon as they migrated downstream. Despite that, estimates are 30 % of the fish die and many more are flushed down the canal; in effect transferred into another river system.
In 1991, DFO built a fish passageway around the diversion dam but it never worked properly. Subsequent studies found fish went in at the bottom end, but never came out at the top, apparently getting confused or forced back by the currents.

Several years ago Mike Gage, a member of the Sayward Fish and Game Club and Chair of the Campbell River Salmon Foundation, went to look at the diversion dam and saw hundreds of coho milling at its base.

He watched as they exhausted themselves trying to jump up the steep, sloping front of the dam and promised himself he would do something to help them. Since then Mr. Gage has been a driving force in an effort to get a new fishway built around the dam.

But when we spoke, in August 2011, he was getting frustrated by the lack of progress. He had spent four-and-a-half years in meetings and people were still only talking endlessly talking about finding possible solutions. Maybe. But first lets have a report on that.
To him the answer is simple. A short fish passage needs to be blasted through rock beside the diversion dam. That would allow coho and steelhead to migrate upstream.

And if the diversion canal was shut down for a few months, during the outmigration of fry in the spring, the loss of young fish could be eliminated entirely.
We could really do something up there, says Mr. Gage.
Indeed they could. A consultants study, prepared in 2010 for a multi-sector committee studying the fish passage proposal, outlines the remarkable potential of the Salmon River.

At full adult recruitment, spawning habitat below the diversion was estimated to be capable of supporting over 58,000 steelhead and 99,000 coho, while the upper river was estimated to be capable of supporting about 16,600 steelhead and 26,000 coho. Those are very high numbers and greatly exceed the spawning targets of 1,500 steelhead and 5,600 coho for the lower river, and 500 steelhead and 1,600 coho for the upper river, states the report.
Those are big numbers and exciting numbers to anyone who fishes. The Salmon, in short, could be made into one of B.C.s best salmon and steelhead rivers.

The Salmon River above diversion

B.C. has lost a lot of fish habitat over the past century. The opportunity to turn the clock back, to not only restore a river but to make it more productive than ever, is a rarity.

BC Hydro, DFO and the province have been talking about the Salmon River fish passageway project for too long. It has been 35 years since provincial fisheries workers blasted the rock out of the canyon, opening a way for fish to colonize the more than 50 kilometres of pristine river that lay upstream. And over four years since the committee began to discuss options.

The opportunity to fully realize the potential of the Salmon has been identified. Now some action is needed.
Lets get on with it.