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.
Three 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.
The B.C. Wildlife Federation executive’s 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.
CN Rail has to have a recovery plan filed with the government by the end of May.