It is wonderful to see our river and lake back at healthy levels and flows after the seemingly endless summer of 2014. As we all know, when the rains came they came in spades and within a few weeks our weir was full and our river was as high as it ever got last winter. The salmon immediately sensed this and bolted up the river, evading the predators in the estuary and getting to their preferred spawning grounds without difficulty.
At the November Cowichan Stewardship Roundtable meeting we learned some very interesting and encouraging things about the health of our river and all of its inhabitants. As I have mentioned before, our salmon are the canary in our coalmine and none more than the Chinook salmon. Shona Smith, DFO Community Relations, stated that the chinook salmon is a keystone species for the indication of watershed health. Chinooks utilize the river and lake nearly all year so they are greatly affected by the health of our watershed. Our chinook run this year is estimated to be about 4,200 fish. Only five years ago the run was down to 500 and in danger of extinction. Genetic diversity is one of the main concerns with dying runs of salmon and our improving run size is helping to remedy this situation. The Stoltz Bluffs restoration project is widely credited with the improvement in our salmon runs, but every little bit of riparian habitat restoration we do helps incrementally to improve the health of our watershed and our salmon.
Coho stocks are also strong but numbers are not available due to lack of funds for this research but the biggest story is in the health of our chum salmon stocks.Tim Kulchyski, biologist with Cowichan Tribes, stated that his elders have always known that a healthy run of chum salmon will lead to healthy runs of all other fish in the coming years. This traditional wisdom is backed up by science. The chum salmon is the largest source of nutrients for our river and riparian ecosystems. Chums provide nitrogen that is essential for plant growth in and around the river. The aquatic plants provide habitat and food for the invertebrates that help sustain juvenile salmon and trout. As the salmon are dragged out of the river and eaten by bears, birds and other animals they provide nutrients to riparian plants and these plants provide needed shelter for young fish along the edges of the river. These riparian plants also provide food for juvenile fish when insects fall off their branches into the river and are quickly eaten.
Our chum run this year is estimated to be over 200,000 fish. There was even a commercial chum fishery in Cowichan Bay where 20,000 fish were harvested by local commercial fishers who were very happy to be fishing right in their own back yard instead of travelling many miles to find fish. According to Wilf Leudke, Senior DFO Biologist, this local abundance of chum salmon goes against the trend of decreasing runs nearly everywhere else up and down our coast.
Credit must be given to all who have been involved in the successful restoration of our salmon stocks. This is a true community effort where representatives from all levels of government have worked harmoniously with First Nations and several conservation groups for the past ten years. We are not yet where we want to be with our salmon stocks but we are making great strides towards getting to our goals. Success breeds success.
The success we have had with our fish stocks can be an inspiration to us as we tackle the formidable tasks of attaining community-based watershed management and food security in the coming years. We know we can do it, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.