By Parker Jefferson
At the November 15th Cowichan Stewardship Roundtable meeting CRVD Chair Rob Hutchins announced that Forest Minister Steve Thompson has agreed to a process that should lead to more flexible management of our weir for next year and beyond. A public consultation process will begin early next year when very detailed water level data will be made available for all lakefront properties. Watch for announcements in the Gazette about this public meeting and be sure to attend if you would like to learn more and express your views about what is being proposed.
This is a change of position for the Provincial Government and is widely credited to the October 25th pubic meeting organized by One Cowichan that was attended by 200 local residents. There were representatives from Cowichan Tribes, Catalyst, the Provincial Government and federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) in attendance and on the panel. Rob Hutchins gave a presentation that explained the weir management issues in great detail and many in attendance expressed support for more flexible management rules. This is a very encouraging demonstration of the power we have as concerned citizens to make positive changes in our community.
On November 1, the Cohen Report on the collapse of the Fraser River sockeye salmon was released to the public. Justice Cohen made 75 recommendations in his report where he stated there was no one cause of the collapse, but it was due to a number of factors. He had some harsh words for the DFO in his report, citing them for a “conflict of interest” regarding their mandate to promote fish farms as well as manage the protection and health of wild fish stocks. He states "that DFO will impose less onerous fish health standards on salmon farms, than it would if its only interest were the protection of wild salmon".
The report also says that more studies are necessary to ensure that fish farms are not harming wild fish by spreading or amplifying both endemic and introduced fish viruses as well as sea lice. He states that there are serious concerns about fish farms located on wild salmon migration routes in the Discovery Islands, near Campbell River. “If at anytime between now and September 30, 2020, the minister of fisheries and oceans determines that net-pen salmon farms in the Discovery Islands pose more than a minimal risk of serious harm to the health of migrating Fraser River sockeye salmon, he or she should promptly order that those salmon farms cease operations”.
Justice Cohen said he found it “disturbing” that the government made cuts to DFO staffing levels and made drastic changes to fish protection regulations before his report was released. He called for more research into fish virus concerns but this will be next to impossible with the drastic cuts made to DFO staff.
Here on the Island, DFO has cut one third of its staff in Habitat and Enforcement. Those left with jobs will have to re-apply for their positions in an open competition regardless of their experience or length of service. Nearly all remaining staff will be assigned to major construction projects like resource extraction and pipeline construction leaving only a small percentage of the former staff to respond to local issues, but they will be effectively chained to their desks because they will have no travel budget. These drastic measures have destroyed morale in the front line DFO employees and will put all salmon and their habitat at serious risk. There is unanimous disapproval of these measures in the stewardship community and it only strengthens our resolve to work hard to protect and preserve our local rivers and lakes.
There was some very good news at the Stewardship Roundtable meeting about chum salmon abundance. The run this year is estimated to be about 400,000 fish when we expected about 160,000. These salmon represent a huge biomass and are a primary source of nutrients for our river ecosystem. After they spawn, their decaying bodies provide essential nutrients for algae growth, aquatic insects, trout, bears and even the trees that grow by the river. Our habitat restoration efforts have certainly been a factor in this tremendous resurgence in salmon abundance, particularly the Stoltz Bluffs project that has greatly improved spawning success in the lower river where most of the chum salmon spawn. We will continue our efforts to take control of and improve our river and lake for all future generations of salmon and people to enjoy.