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Cheakamus River recovery plan swirls

Ministry hires scientist to review proposed steelhead habitat recovery plan

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Faced with a potential "bucket brigade" from those determined to bring back Cheakamus River steelhead numbers, the Ministry of Environment has hired an independent scientist to review provincial biologists’ steelhead recovery plans.

"The B.C. government wants to ensure that it can arrive at the best possible decision based on sound science for the rehabilitation and long-term health of the Cheakamus River with steelhead," Ministry spokesperson Don McDonald announced Friday.

The announcement of the independent review followed a news conference held earlier that day by four UBC fisheries scientists who spoke out against the province’s habitat-only enhancement plan for the Cheakamus River, which lost half a million fish in a Canadian National Railway derailment and caustic soda spill last summer.

"The proposed habitat improvement measures are extremely unlikely to provide any benefit to steelhead in the Cheakamus River," the scientists, led by PhD candidate Josh Korman, who has worked on the river for 10 years, said in a prepared statement.

Two other UBC faculty joined Korman in criticizing the province’s habitat-only enhancement for steelhead. Ninety per cent of steelhead in the river were killed in last summer’s spill.

"No scientist that I know would recommend or would expect that habitat enhancement would have any positive effect when the abundance of animals is already very low," said Dr. Carl Walters, a fisheries assessment expert.

The scientists, along with anglers, environmentalists, fishing guides and Squamish Nation, are advocating for a two-year hatchery program that would take advantage of a healthy spring run of returning steelhead unaffected by the spill.

"The debate should not be about whether hatchery supplementation is the right or wrong thing to do in the case of Cheakamus River steelhead recovery… (it) should be about what decision gives us the highest probability of achieving the desired outcome," the scientists said in a prepared statement.

The B.C. Wildlife Federation’s executive director expressed concern that some conservationists and anglers were willing to take hatchery matters into their own hands.

"We had a stakeholders’s meeting in Squamish and the (province’s) risky strategy is so unacceptable to the community that there will be, in my belief, civil disobedience," Tony Toth said. "Someone will catch the brood stock, someone will raise the fry, someone will return them to the river because they are not prepared to accept what has been proposed."

Ministry of Environment biologists in attendance at the meeting have expressed doubt as to the likelihood of steelhead enhancement, but Friday softened their position.

"If a year from now we see something didn’t work, if we go in and say ‘holy crap’ nothing survived from last year, that’s a totally different picture – we’ll have to start thinking of other things," said Brian Clark, the ministry’s special projects regional manager.

Later that day the ministry announced the hiring of Dr. Mark Labelle, a UBC alumnus and expert in coho population dynamics. Labelle will review steelhead recovery plans for the Ministry of Environment.

Contacted at his home in Sydney, Labelle said he was called by the Ministry on Thursday and asked to sit in on the scientists’ Friday news conference. Details of his contract were still being finalized this week.

Although in his career he has worked monitoring hatcheries and examining survival rates and migration patterns, Labelle said he didn’t know what all the "hoopla" was about in regards to the Cheakamus River.

"This one in the grand scheme of things is a small issue," he said. "Tens of thousands of sockeye missing in the Fraser – that’s a big problem."

UBC’s Walters said he is confident Labelle will do a good job.

"He is very familiar with the options and issues under discussion on the Cheakamus, and can be trusted to do a careful and independent review."

Labelle is expected to file a report by end of April.

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