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Drought signs raise fears of another fish die-off in B.C. rivers

Images of steelhead and trout flicker over long sheets of paper, brought to life in blue and green crayon rubbings by the thousands. 

It’s called Project 84,000 and is intended to depict the number of fish that died in the drought-stricken Cowichan River on southern Vancouver Island last July.

Jennifer Shepherd has been managing the project, which involves a series of gatherings in the community to create the rubbings that will go on display later this year — in what will be an art event, an environmental awareness campaign and an act of mourning for the fish.

“The enormity of the loss was something that really struck me,” said Shepherd, a community researcher with water sustainability group Xwulqw’selu Connections, who said the project aimed to help people comprehend the scale of the loss of life.

“It felt really tragic and sad to me, and I thought this would be a good idea for us to mark together in the community, for us to really honour and acknowledge.”

Scientists and others like Shepherd worry that climate change and the threat of another year of drought could have further dire consequences for populations of salmon, trout and other fish in B.C.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) says climate change is affecting every stage of the life cycle for Pacific salmon, while the B.C. government warns drought can dry up fish streams, delay spawning migrations and kill fish in warm water. Vulnerable species include salmon and trout but also endangered species such as the Nooksack dace and Salish sucker, the government says.

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About 40 per cent of the province is already at Level 3, 4 or 5 drought, meaning drought impacts are possible, likely or certain, respectively. The April snow survey by the B.C. River Forecast Centre showed the lowest snowpack on record in the province, at just 63 per cent of normal, potentially increasing drought risk this spring and summer.

“We’ve been talking about climate change now for decades and generally we’ve done nothing about it as a society, and now we are paying the price,” said fisheries biologist Tom Rutherford, the strategic priorities director for the Cowichan Watershed Board.

“And unless we are able to move the needle to change our behaviour around how we treat our water, how we treat our rivers, how we treat our salmon — if we can’t do that, we’ll lose them. They’ll be gone in 50 years,” said Rutherford, a former DFO biologist.

In the Cowichan Valley, community members treat fish and rivers as relatives and family members rather than resources, he added. 

That made losses such as the July fish kill overwhelming. 

“It’s a beautiful river, but it’s more than that. It’s like family … and I think that’s how so many of us feel,” he said.

A view of the Cowichan River from the 66 Mile Trestle in Cowichan River Provincial Park. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

The DFO said in a statement that the fish kill was more likely due to “stressful environmental conditions than of a specific cause.”

Rutherford pointed to several factors, including warm river conditions with temperatures over 20 C, and low water flows. He said it was the lowest the river had been since the 1950s, making trout and salmon “severely stressed.”

“It’s just this cumulative stress of all these things layered on top of each other,” he said.

Widespread problem

Declines are evident to others watching rivers elsewhere in B.C.

In Chilliwack, about 100 kilometres east of Vancouver, lifelong salmon sports fisherman Travis Heathman said he’d witnessed a “tragic” shift watching the fish struggle to survive in the Vedder River.

Heathman, 68, who started fishing the Vedder at age 12, said many fish were dying with unfertilized eggs inside them. 

He said the fate of fishing on the Vedder keeps him awake at night. 

“My son fishes in the river, his boys fish the river, and I worry about the future,” he said.

For Jason Hwang, vice-president of the Pacific Salmon Foundation, the impact of drought on the fish he loves has hit close to home.

Last summer, he watched as a small stream next to his home in Kamloops, B.C., dried up in just a couple days.

“Over the course of about 48 hours, all the fish in the pool died — dozens and dozens of juvenile salmon and bigger juvenile trout,” said Hwang.

Hwang said he heard reports of many rivers around B.C. facing the same challenge, from the Fraser to the Skeena and Bulkley hundreds of kilometres to the north.

He said the Fraser suffered record low flow last summer. It got so shallow that water couldn’t flow through a concrete fish ladder built about 60 years ago. 

Only a few salmon survived the arduous journey to spawn, said Hwang. 

Salmon are ‘resilient’

Describing salmon as “a gift” to the world, Hwang said he couldn’t imagine a river without them.

“They support the forests, they support the eagles, they support the bears, they support the killer whales,” he said. “They connect the freshwater ecosystem to the ocean. Very few things can do that.

“We need to look more at the bigger picture plan, we need to change the way we use water. We need to protect our watersheds better,” he added. 

A person holds a chinook salmon as it gets radio tagged by Fisheries and Oceans Canada staff near Lytton, B.C. as part of efforts to monitor and count salmon after the 2019 Big Bar landslide in 2019.
A chinook salmon is radio tagged by Fisheries and Oceans Canada staff near Lytton, B.C., in 2022. (Submitted by Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

He noted how chinook salmon returns in the Cowichan had recovered after years of effort.

“Salmon are resilient. If we start undoing the things that we’ve done to cause them harm and we manage our natural resources better, they can recover,” said Hwang. 

Shepherd hopes Project 84,000 will help open people’s eyes to their own relationships with fish and the waters they rely on. The finished work is due to go on display in the Cowichan Valley Arts Council Gallery in Duncan, B.C., this fall.

“Water is life, water is our kin and the water is the home and habitat for more than fish. We are all connected, everything is connected,” Shepherd said.

“And what might we choose to change in terms of our beliefs, our attitudes and our actions individually and collectively to preserve the health and wellness of the fish, the water, the watershed and ourselves?” she asked. 

“Starting from that place of understanding, then we can look at one of the impacts of our choices.”

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