Steelhead fish culture enhancement should go ahead, according to a technical committee drafting recommendations for Cheakamus River recovery efforts.
"The majority of opinion of the technical committee is that the steelhead program go forward and that’s the recommendation we’re putting forward," said District of Squamish environmental coordinator Chessy Langford.
The technical committee will make its recommendations to the Cheakamus Ecosystem Restoration Steering Committee (CERSC) this Friday in North Vancouver. The committees, struck last fall, include representatives from Canadian National Railway, District of Squamish, Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, B.C. Ministry of Environment and the Squamish Nation.
Of the six representatives on the technical committee, four voted in favour of steelhead enhancement for the Cheakamus River. Provincial biologist Greg Wilson representing the Ministry of Environment, voted against the program and federal biologist Matt Foy, representing Fisheries and Oceans Canada, abstained from the vote.
"CN is willing to support steelhead enhancement because it’s good biology," Langford said. "And not because of just putting 500 gazillion fish in the river because it looks good."
Over half a million fish were killed last August when a CN train derailed and one tanker split, pouring 41,000 litres of caustic soda into the river. Steelhead juveniles, already distressed by a 2003 flood that reduced their numbers, suffered up to 95 per cent loss. A healthy returning March run of steelhead this year could provide brood stock for a steelhead enhancement program. The federally-operated Tenderfoot Creek Hatchery near Squamish has offered its facilities for such a program. But provincial biologists have ignored calls for fish culture enhancement, opting instead for a plan to increase river production through bolstering nutrient values and side channel improvements.
Environmental protection officer Luanne Patterson, representing CN, voted in favour of CN-funded steelhead fish culture enhancement at the technical committee meeting.
"We are prepared to pay for both the steelhead recovery and habitat improvement programs because that combination is the best way to insure that fish stocks return to normal levels," said Graham Dallas, CN spokesperson. "We fully support the recommendation to undertake the steelhead recovery program."
District of Squamish’s Langford said dynamics have shifted in the fish war that now pits the provincial Ministry of Environment, which has authority over what happens to steelhead, against a majority of other voices, including biologists, conservations and anglers, calling for steelhead enhancement.
"It’s an odd feeling that the sides are changing," Langford said. "It’s amazing to think that fish could get that political."
The Cheakamus Ecosystem Restoration Steering Committee will consider the technical committee’s recommendations Friday. CN must file a recovery plan for the Cheakamus River with the province within the next two months.