Last November I spent a lot of time in the river fishing for Coho salmon and I noticed something unusual. To get to the river I had to walk through rotting piles of chum salmon carcasses on the shore. As the month went on, more and more carcasses arrived and the smell was one only a true salmon fisher could love.
The reason this was happening was that we had very little rain after the middle of last November and the river was steadily dropping. The big rain events we see in November usually wash the dead salmon down the river, but this did not happen last year. The low river condition continued until after about the middle of January and when we did get rain last winter it was never in the quantity needed to push the river anywhere near high water. In a strange twist of fate, the unusually low water levels we experienced last winter are benefitting our returning salmon this fall, struggling to enter our river that is running well below the level of 7 cubic meters per second (CMS) we would like to see for salmon migration.
In the summer of 2013 we removed huge quantities of gravel from the lower river. In the North Arm, which had been drying up every fall for many years, a new deep channel was created specifically to improve fish habitat and to aid salmon migration in low water.
The lower river is plagued by a constant flow of gravel coming down the river each winter. The gravel is there as a result of erosion in the upper watershed due to past logging practices. Removing this gravel from the lower river will be a constant maintenance requirement for our community to reduce flood risk and aid salmon migration.
We expected the new channel in the North Arm might not last long as high water events could fill it in quickly but the high water did not come last winter and we estimate the new channel only filed in about 30%. As a result, the large Chinook are able to utilize this channel, as well as the South Arm, to enter the river in spite of our very low flow rate of 4.5 CMS. At the time of this writing over 800 Chinooks have made it past the counting fence. The total run is expected to be about 5,000 and should peak around Oct 4.
The main concern we have for our returning salmon is the risk of predation from seals in the bay and lower river when the river is too low for the salmon to enter. The fact that they are able to enter the river this year in such extremely low water is very encouraging, as they are evading the kind of predation we last saw in the drought year of 2012.
The DFO is monitoring the situation very closely and it is possible that we might not have to truck salmon up the river this year. If the Chinooks can get away from the predators and fight their way up our shallow river to spawning areas we might not need to help them. There are some difficult spots for them to get past in this water level so they may not get to their preferred spawning beds at the top of the river, but there are good spawning areas they do have access to in the mid-river area.
It now appears likely that we can maintain our current river flow of 4.5 CMS indefinitely this fall. Recent rains have improved our situation and inflows to the lake have picked up. This is great news for Catalyst, as they will not have to shut down their mill and face the enormous losses that would entail. Our community leaders, First Nations, government agencies and all of us in the stewardship community are breathing a sigh of relief. We appear to have dodged the bullet this fall.
No one knows what the future will bring, but the severe droughts we experienced in 2012 and again this summer have certainly been a wake up call. We will now proceed with plans to increase summer water storage so we don’t have to re-live this low water drama every year.