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A river half empty

As feds and province quarrel over Cheakamus rehabilitation, steelhead recovery swims past



Swirling debate between conservationists, biologists, and anglers over whether to re-stock Cheakamus River steelhead that were decimated in last summer’s Canadian National Railway caustic soda spill has prompted the minister of environment to wade into the furor, exposing the wide policy divide between provincial and federal jurisdictions.

"Introducing steelhead from a hatchery, even if on a onetime basis, may have a lasting impact that is not positive," Environment Minister Barry Penner said in an interview Monday.

"We want to move quickly but we also want to be careful less there be unattended consequences."

Ministry biologists met with Penner this week to present their recommendations about how best to rehabilitate the Cheakamus River.

Brian Clark is the ministry’s Lower Mainland regional manager and says capitalizing this month on what some say is the best steelhead run in 10 years, to recover the river through fish culture is not a good idea.

"Under natural conditions you could have this river recovery start in five years, total recovery in 15 years," he said. "But throw in some hatchery fish and all of a sudden it’s unknown – it may work or may not."

Clark cites a potentially weakened genetic strain, a disbelief that stocking programs could raise population levels faster than natural growth, and long-term ministry guidelines as reasons for not allowing hatchery fish into the river.

"Under provincial policy Cheakamus River is and always was classified as a wild river and under that policy you don’t stock wild rivers," said Clark.

He suggests, instead, enhancing river productivity through improving food supply with nutrient addition that will increase the survival rate of fish. With these methods, the ministry anticipates a return of 40 steelhead for 2010.

Penner said the recently approved Cheakamus hydro electricity water use plan, that adjusts how the facility releases flows from the Daisy Lake dam, will create a positive environment for juvenile fish.

"This is intended to improve the likelihood of fry surviving in the water course," Penner said, "by being allowed to grow to a bigger size before being carried out to the ocean."

Tenderfoot Creek hatchery worker Scott Melville releases pink salmon fry into the Cheakamus River. Photo by Maureen Provencal

But the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which is responsible for salmon populations in the Cheakamus, regards fish culture differently than provincial authorities. DFO’s Tenderfoot Creek hatchery, just north of Squamish, has been restocking chinook salmon into the Cheakamus River for over 20 years. On behalf of the province, DFO used to enhance steelhead – ocean-going trout prized by anglers for their strength and beauty – but that ended in 1992.