Author: Colin Levings, Emeritus Scientist, Fisheries and Oceans Canada
Reviewer: David Levy, President, Levy Research Services Ltd.
Banner Photo Credit: Gary Fiegehen
For many Howe Sound streams, accurate counts of spawning salmon are not available but some trends are apparent from fisheries records and a few detailed studies. Following a number of years of low abundance, the dramatic return of Squamish River pink salmon in 2013 and 2015 is a major story for Howe Sound salmonids. Pink salmon returns were so strong in 2013 that Howe Sound had its first commercial opening for salmon in recent memory. Meanwhile chum salmon returns in the Cheakamus Rivers in recent years have varied three fold. Chinook and coho salmon stocks have been depressed since the 1970s and 1980s, both in Howe Sound streams and in other systems throughout the Salish Sea.
Why is it important?
Salmon, by virtue of their abundance and provision of nitrogen from the sea, provide critical food supplies to the Howe Sound ecosystem at various stages of their life cycle. For example, resident orcas may feed on adult Chinook salmon as they return to Howe Sound through the Salish Sea. Spawning salmon and their carcasses provide food sources for eagles, gulls, bear and other predators. Nutrients from carcasses may fertilize stream-side vegetation. Cutthroat trout, along with dippers and mergansers may feed on the salmon eggs during spawning, while marine fish and seals can feed on juvenile salmon the following spring.
Salmon supply ecosystem services such as provision of seafood for Howe Sound communities and beyond. For example Squamish River Chinook salmon are caught in commercial fisheries on the North Coast of B.C. as well as sports fisheries in the Strait of Georgia. Recreational fishers in streams draining into Howe Sound are usually restricted to catch and release for other salmonids (i.e., steelhead, cutthroat trout and bull trout). Regulations for other species vary from year to year and are usually set to protect wild stocks (e.g., currently only hatchery-reared coho may be retained).
There are at least 33 streams draining into Howe Sound that salmon are known to use (Figure 1.)
|22||Twenty Eight Mile Creek||♦||♦|
|23||High Falls Creek||♦||♦|
|28||Hop Ranch Creek||♦||♦|
|32||Loggers Lane Creek||♦|
The Squamish Nation had historic villages in the Elaho Valley. My ancestors come from Poyam IR 9, among other IR’s in our territory. The Elaho valley was strategic in defence against our enemy’s, before contact, protecting the back door of our territory.
I have completed a prefeasibility study on the Elaho River watershed. The main objective was to convince the Provincial Government that in fact salmon did spawn in this watershed. The result from the study is that Squamish Nation history was accurate. This system had Chinook, Coho, steelhead, and possibly Pink salmon.
The study shows that salmon have been cut off from the watershed by logging road building and in particular a large rock obstruction caused by logging road blasting. This obstruction has made over 50 km of pristine spawning grounds unavailable for salmon spawning. Some Chinook and Coho salmon have gotten by this large rock obstruction and have been observed by First Nations members, Provincial biologists, and guide anglers – if the rock was gone many more will use the river once again.
After all of our work, the Province now supports Squamish Nation and DFO in removing the large rock obstruction. I will be organizing a team from the Province, DFO and experts to remove the rock this year or next year after further studies.
We will have salmon once again in the Elaho valley watershed.
-Randall Lewis, Squamish Nation
First Nations Connections (added by CORI)
Salmon in Squamish Nation cultural and spiritual heritage
“In the long ago, the Squamish people believed that salmon are supernatural, as reflected in an oft-told story that teaches listeners to treat the salmon with special respect because they are gifts from the Salmon People.
According to the story, the Xays (transformers), who traveled the world changing people into animals and mountains, were invited to a feast hosted by the Chief of the Salmon People. The Chief sent two young people into the water, where they were transformed into Salmon for the gathering, on the condition that every single salmon bone be returned to the water.
But, as the story goes, one of the Xays deliberately kept a bone, causing one young person to come back from the river deformed. The Chief took revenge by killing Xay and the seagulls plucked out his eyes. Brought back to life by his brother, Xay had to try out different salmon eyes as substitutes and the eyes that worked the best were from the Pink Salmon.
The story ends with the humbled Xays trying to convince the Chief to be at peace with them. The Chief agrees to send his people in cycles, the Pink Salmon only every other year, on the condition that all the bones of the first salmon caught during each harvest be returned to the water.”
– content reproduced with permission from “Where rivers, mountains and people meet,” Squamish Líl’wat Cultural Centre.
What is the current status?
The number of salmon returning to spawn (escapement) in Howe Sound streams depends on their survival in river, estuary, and ocean. With the possible exception of pink salmon, the abundance of all salmonids in Howe Sound is lower now compared to the mid-1940s, which is the “baseline” time period for the Squamish River Watershed Salmon Recovery Plan. In general, spawning data for Howe Sound streams are not comprehensive and are of mixed quality. Visual counts are unreliable in the many rivers and streams in the Squamish River system, due to turbidity from glacial silt. Visual counts are not comparable to tagging methods such as Peterson mark-recapture estimates. Chum salmon on the Cheakamus River probably have the best record (Figure 1). Coho salmon hide in small streams and spawners are notoriously difficult to assess.
There are a variety of pressures on Howe Sound’s salmon populations. Salmon grow and mature in the Salish Sea as well as the coastal and mid-Pacific Ocean and are affected by factors such as sport and commercial harvesting, as well as ocean warming and acidification that can negatively affect food supply. Within Howe Sound, salmon have been adversely affected by loss of stream and estuary habitat, degraded water quality, and changes in freshwater flow. Increased winter flood events can scour salmon eggs from river gravels, while low flows in late summer can block returning salmon from access to their spawning grounds. Many of the problems are associated with land development in the past few decades, especially in the lower Squamish River system and urbanized creeks on Howe Sound. The continuing development of watersheds and estuaries, proposed industrial activity, and the cumulative effects on ecosystem processes and salmonid food supply are key emerging issues for Howe Sound.
What can you do?
Actions contributed by CORI
Individual and Organization Actions:
- As an individual or organization, join local restoration efforts (e.g., Squamish Streamkeepers) to help monitor and maintain freshwater salmon habitat.
- Monitor fishery status and limits. Ensure you are fishing within current regulations.
- Eat sustainable seafood.
Government Actions and Policy:
- Increase focus on data collection in order to get accurate, high quality counts of spawners. Use tagging methods over visual counts where feasible.
- Increase support for community habitat restoration efforts including spawning channels, rearing channels, reconnection of side channels, and weirs.
- Promote and fund the rehabilitation of modified rivers and streams such that salmon habitat is enhanced. This includes promoting shaded riparian areas to help lower stream temperatures.
- Continue to monitor water quality and treatment, and support on-going remediation at Britannia Mine.
- Increase public education on the status of salmon, and how people can help salmon stocks recover.
- Recognise the importance of estuary habitat for spawning and rearing salmon.
- Protect all estuary habitats from residential, commercial, or industrial development.
- Reclaim and rehabilitate estuary habitat that has been modified by past development.
- Increase monitoring and enforcement of fishery limits, openings and closures.