Beyond salmon The Whistler Fisheries Stewardship Group has been working hard to preserve part of our heritage By Bob Barnett Photos courtesy Whistler Fisheries Stewardship Group Unless you’ve been living outside of B.C. this long, hot summer (pity) you’ve heard about the troubled state of the province’s fishing industry. You may have read about Premier Glen Clark accusing federal Fisheries Minister David Anderson of "selling out" B.C. fishermen to the United States. You may have heard fishermen threatening to blockade Johnstone Strait. And you probably heard all kinds of talk about how many Canadian coho there are, how many sockeye the Americans are entitled to, and how many chinook can be caught and a sustainable industry still maintained. And unless you’re involved in the industry, you probably don’t know who or what to believe. But away from the political rhetoric and the media glare there is another fishing story that’s easier to understand, and perhaps more hopeful. It doesn’t involve unions, factory trawlers or even salmon, but it does relate to a way of life in B.C. that could be lost. We’re talking about rainbow trout, Dolly Varden and kokanee, the fish that have lived in the streams flowing into and out of Whistler for centuries. These are the fish — the rainbow trout in particular — which made Alta Lake one of the great fishing destinations in Western Canada in the early part of the century. In the latter part of the century development in the Whistler Valley threatened to wipe the fish out. Many streams had been blocked or diverted. Silt, the by-product of countless excavations, choked other streams, making them uninhabitable for fish. Culverts, installed to facilitate automobile traffic, often acted as barriers, preventing fish from travelling up streams. At about the same time the pace of development began to explode in Whistler, the town also started taking off as a summer resort. One of the summer attractions was fishing, but local guides and outdoors people recognized that fishing wasn’t going to grow if fish habitat was suffering as a result of development. In 1995 the Whistler Angling Club and the Whistler Rotary Club, with support from the municipal parks department, undertook fish inventories on Crabapple Creek and the River of Golden Dreams. Fish traps were built on the creeks and volunteers showed up daily to count the fish, record the species, size and sex, and then release them. The fish count proved what many had suspected, that Crabapple Creek, the tiny little stream that meanders through Whistler Cay and past the north end of the Whistler Golf Course, was the main trout bearing creek in the valley. Surprised and excited by the number of fish found, particularly in Crabapple, in 1996 the Angling Club, Rotary Club and the parks department formed the Whistler Fisheries Stewardship Group to tackle stream habitat issues throughout the valley. The clubs provided the volunteers while the parks department’s contribution was administrative support, in the person of Heather Beresford. The administrative support provided by the municipality is one of the unique aspects of the Whistler Fisheries Stewardship Group, and part of what has made it so effective. The municipality now also provides some funding for the group, but the most important source of funds has been the Ministry of Environment’s Urban Salmon Habitat Program. In 1996 the USHP provided $10,000, which allowed the Whistler Fisheries Stewardship Group to hire an environmental consultant to prepare a five-year plan for stream enhancement projects. In 1997, with a $19,000 USHP grant, the group completed three major projects in the first year of the plan: enhancing Crabapple Creek (which was bulldozed during a flood in 1990) by complexing the stream bed with boulders and rootwads and reinforcing stream banks that were eroding; two old culverts on the Catholic Church property that disrupted Crabapple were removed, with the co-operation of the church; and fish passage baffles were built in the Millar Creek culvert at Function Junction, allowing juvenile fish to migrate upstream. This summer three more major stream enhancement projects were completed with the help of an $18,600 USHP grant: a bypass channel on the River of Golden Dreams which allows juvenile fish to migrate upstream past the weir; an old dam on Scotia Creek was removed because it blocked gravel from moving downstream and maintaining good spawning habitat near Alta Lake; and work was done on Blackcomb Creek at Lost Lake to control erosion and improve fish habitat. In addition to these stream enhancement projects the WFSG has made education part of its mandate. "There’s no point in fixing things if we’re going to keep wrecking them," Beresford says. Three-week programs for students at Myrtle Philip and Whistler Secondary schools have been offered the last two years, which include measuring stream habitats, testing water quality and identifying insects to help determine the health of a stream. Fish inventory programs have also continued each summer on various creeks, which provides the municipal planning department with information for its annual monitoring report. Not a bad effort for a group of volunteers only finishing the second year of a five-year plan to clean up local streams. While politicians, professional fishermen and the media concentrated on the fishing controversy on the coast, volunteers in Whistler — and many other B.C. communities — have been quietly working to ensure that fish continue to be part of our way of life. But despite the enthusiasm for the projects there’s some question as to whether groups like the WFSG will have the means to continue their work beyond next summer. The provincial USHP is a five-year program, and funding runs out in 1999. The program could be renewed, but given the state of the provincial economy and the emphasis on salmon, no one’s counting on an extension. "A couple of summers ago our stewardship advisor, Rob Knight from the Ministry of Environment, couldn’t come up to Whistler any more because they couldn’t afford any more gasoline," Beresford says. Which is why earlier this year the WFSG — which now includes Whistler/Blackcomb, the three local golf courses, AWARE and representatives of the municipality’s parks, planning, engineering and roads departments, as well as the Angling and Rotary clubs — formed a society. As a registered charitable society the WFSG will be eligible for funding from organizations like the Whistler/Blackcomb Foundation. And there is still plenty of determination to continue improving fish habitat. The municipality now funds a fish technician for the summer. The five year plan for Whistler streams still includes major projects such as channel complexing on the realigned Whistler Creek, channel rehabilitation of Lakeside Creek and stream work in Jordon Creek, the main creek for kokanee, the species which have seen the greatest decline in Whistler. You can find out more about the Whistler Fisheries Stewardship Group and Whistler’s river heritage on Sunday, Sept. 27 at the third annual B.C. Rivers Day celebration at the Outdoor Adventure Centre, by the Edgewater. The whole community is invited to participate in the activities, including a canoe scavenger hunt up the River of Golden Dreams and around parts of Green Lake. A barbecue will be held following the scavenger hunt and members of the WFSG will be on hand to discuss past and future projects. Pre-registration is required. Call Heather Beresford or Veronica Sommerville at 932-2423.