Too many fish? Wait…what? How could there be too many fish in the Cowichan River? I am afraid I uttered those words recently while fishing for coho salmon.
The part of the river near my house opened for fishing November 1st and my friend and I went out to see if we could catch a coho. The problem we were having is that we kept catching chum salmon. Like every cast. The river is full of chum salmon and though there are also lots of coho we couldn’t keep the chum from biting our flies. We were laughing a lot, as this falls under the category of a good problem.
After the lowest sustained river flow in history, a mere 4.5 CMS from May 28th until October 7th, the fall rains came again just in time, our river quickly shot up over 100 CMS and the migrating salmon are very happy about that.
Once again we have dodged the bullet for our large and essential fall salmon migration. The other good news is the returns of chinook salmon are about double expectations at just under 10,000 fish counted. There were many uncounted because the high water blew out the counting fence before the run was over. This is the largest chinook return since the turn of the century.
I can attest that there is also a healthy chum run, expected to be around 170,000 fish. This huge biomass is the most important nutrient source for our river ecosystem. Coho are not counted but the run seems very strong with large healthy fish. Last year coho returns were dismal at 10% of expectations coast wide.
This good news is very encouraging to all of us who work so hard to protect and enhance the health of our watershed ecosystems. Groups like the Cowichan Lake and River Stewardship Society, Cowichan Lake Salmonid Enhancement Society, The Cowichan Stewardship Roundtable, Lake Cowichan Band, Cowichan Tribes, One Cowichan and others deserve credit for their mostly volunteer efforts.
When we decided that we had to reduce river flows in May or risk a drying river in mid summer we mounted a massive and well-coordinated fry rescue effort. Tens of thousands of salmon and steelhead fry were moved from rapidly drying pools into safer areas in the river and lake. This issue in the spring has become a routine problem and we do not know how it will affect the salmon runs in the future.
We need river flows in the range of 15 to 25 CMS from May to July to give emerging salmon and steelhead fry suitable habitat and protection from predators that large wetted areas on the river edges can provide for them. When we go to 4.5 CMS in May we are stressing the salmon fry and we won’t see the results for 3 or 4 years when this age class returns to the river.
So though our river has again recovered this fall, we must not forget the importance of increasing our summer water storage by reconstructing the weir and extending the operating season much earlier than the current April 1st date currently in effect. It was the lack of rain in April and May that caused this years’ emergency flow situation.
Community leaders from the Cowichan Watershed Board, Catalyst, CVRD and Cowichan Tribes are united in support for increasing summer water storage. Meetings are planned over the winter with federal and provincial authorities to keep moving this initiative forward.
Catalyst is also exploring the possibility of installing up to 30 cm of increased temporary storage on the existing weir. This process is slow, and could only be done for the summer of 2018 if at all. The best-case scenario has a new weir in place by 2019 or 2020.
Citizens with One Cowichan have been out at community events and knocking on doors over the summer and fall talking with others about the importance of storing more water in Cowichan Lake. To date we have collected over 1500 signatures on a petition calling for federal infrastructure funds designated for adapting to climate change for raising the weir. We will continue working on this petition throughout the fall and winter as Cowichan-Malahat-Langford MP Alistair MacGregor can speak in the House of Commons on this issue every 25 signatures. You can download the petition form here to sign, get your family and friends to sign and hand back in before we send them off to Ottawa.
We have at least a few more years of stress in store for our river and lake. The community groups working to keep it healthy will continue working tirelessly to mitigate the effects of climate change. If you have energy for this task please consider volunteering to help or donating to these groups to keep the work going until we see some relief with additional water storage.