By Bob Barnett
Local and provincial politicians joined students from the North Vancouver Outdoor School Friday in releasing thousands of steelhead smolts into the Cheakamus River, another step in what could be a 50-year process to rehabilitate the waterway.
The release, one of three this spring that will see 20,000 hatchery-reared smolts introduced to the river, comes 21 months after a Canadian National Railway train derailed in the Cheakamus Canyon, dumping more than 40,000 litres of caustic soda into the river and killing an estimated 500,000 fish.
“This is sort of a sexy fish, this is a high-profile fish,” Squamish Councillor Patricia Heintzman said following the release of the 20 cm smolts in a side-channel of the Cheakamus. “Things like the sculpins are going to be harder to bring back because the money isn’t there necessarily and people don’t see them. But they are a vital aspect of the ecosystem so those things might be slower too.”
Friday’s release was a positive step in the recovery of the Cheakamus, but there are still many questions surrounding the spill and the rehabilitation program. Although CN is funding the recovery program no representative from the railway was at Friday’s release and Squamish Mayor Ian Sutherland said there have been challenges dealing with CN.
As well, a Transportation Safety Board report on the Aug. 5, 2005 derailment is still not available and the two-year statute of limitations on suing CN nears.
It also took considerable pressure before the B.C. Ministry of Environment agreed to go ahead with a steelhead recovery program in the first place.
Environment Minister Barry Penner said Friday’s release of smolts was part of an ongoing recovery program.
“The river has been recovering naturally and there are wild steelhead and other species in the river today but we want to give nature a hand to speed up the recovery process,” Penner said.
He added that his ministry has invoiced CN for approximately $220,000 to date.
“That represents our direct out of pocket expenses in responding to the spill in the immediate hours following the derailment but also some of the ongoing planning and rehabilitation work,” he said.
Penner said the side channel where the smolts were released was an example of the kind of work that will be done in the future. “There’ll be some additional work like this to create additional rearing habitat as well as spawning habitat for the steelhead.”
In February CN announced a five-year, $1.25 million partnership with the Pacific Salmon Foundation to implement a recovery plan in the Squamish River. In a press release from CN last week Normand Pellerin, CN’s assistant vice-president, Environment, said: “CN is dedicated to the recovery of fish populations on the Cheakamus River, and this release demonstrates the strength of our partnership with other stakeholders to help make the recovery plan a success.”