Where Have All The Wild Salmon Gone?

By Roy L Hales


Six to eight hundred adult Chum Salmon used to come up Hansen’s Creek. Now there are 30 in a good year and as few as 3 in poor ones. Though we were talking about Cortes Island, this is a common phenomenon along the West Coast of British Columbia. Where have all the Wild Salmon gone?

Where Have All The Wild Salmon Gone?

“Streams are everything to the fish population of Cortes Island. Overall I suppose ,,, (our salmon population is ) a tiny portion of what we have in BC, but we have destroyed so much of it and what is left is under stress from continual development, excessive logging and now Climate Change. We have to hang on to every little bit and help because every little bit is critical now,” said Cec Robinson, one of the founders of Cortes Streamkeepers.

He described the condition of Cortes Island’s streams as medium.

Lack Of Gravel

“They are clean, run reasonably cool because they have enough second growth forest cover around them and healthy repair zones (wetlands). So in that sense they are in reasonably good shape, but they all suffer from a lack of gravel … When the salmon come to spawn, they have nothing to stir up,”said Robinson.

“This stems from the early logging days. It was tough and they did things they easiest way they could, which often meant dragging logs straight down the creek bed because that was the natural way to get them to salt water. The original inventory of spawning gravel is basically scoured out of the creek beds was scoured down to hard pan. .. A lot of the stream beds that we have are basically clay, with very little spawning gravel.”

An angular shaped rock from Hansen's Creek, Cortes Island - Roy L Hales photo
An angular shaped rock from Hansen’s Creek, Cortes Island – Roy L Hales photo

He picked up one of the stones from the creaked, “Most of this rock has sharp corners on it. That indicates it has come from road building. Instead of being a deep bed of nice round baseball size rocks that have all been eroded by the water, here there is a very limited amount of primarily unnaturally shaped rocks.”

The number of salmon returning would increase simply by adding gravel to existing creek beds.

Culverts: A Fish Passage Problem

Another major problem, common throughout most of British Columbia’s coastline, is culverts.

“They create a fish passage problem almost every time,” said Robinson.

When the waters are high in Basil Creek, for example, fish can swim through the culvert (shown at the top of this page) to their spawning grounds.

“The fish that come early, before the Fall rains, cannot get through that culvert. Last year we had a particularly early start to the Chum and Pink Salmon. They all died right at the front of that culvert. There isn’t enough of a pool at the front of the outlet for them to gain some speed and jump into that culvert. There isn’t enough water in the culvert to get them through. They were just sitting desperately waiting for some water and a predator nailed them all. I don’t know if it was a mink or what, but you could look at the caucuses later and see that 9 out of 10 of them had not spawned,” he said.

The Beaver Dam

Hansen's Creek on Cortes Island - Roy L Hales Photo
Hansen’s Creek on Cortes Island – Roy L Hales Photo

Robinson links the decline of Hanson’s creek’s fish population to the disappearance of a Beaver dam.

“This was a clear demarcation in the salmon population, it fell off drastically right after that. I’m sure it scoured out a bunch more gravel,” he said.

He did not know what the fish population was prior to the beaver dam, or how they got past it, but “if there was any way for the coho to push their way through that beaver dam they would do that.”

The young Coho stay in the stream for at least a year, sometimes two.

“They’ll push their way upstream as far as they can go. Right now the bulk of the population are up in the meadow,” said Robinson.

Most of The Developed Coast

He added, “I would say we are more fortunate than most of the developed coast. I think most streamkeepers groups are struggling with semi-stagnant streams that have become more of sewer or a ditch than a stream and they are desperately trying to find a ways to encourage fish back into them. We have far more to work with, and protect, than most places. – but the general problems we are talking about exist everywhere.”

No wonder BC’s fish population is declining.

“You can’t have healthy streams without cold clean water and you cannot have that without a healthy forest around it,” he said.

Climate Change

Basil Creek in front of the culvert that passes under Whaletown road. The water level is already low (May 11, 2016) - Roy L Hales photo
Basil Creek in front of the culvert that passes under Whaletown road. The water level is already low (May 11, 2016) – Roy L Hales photo

“Last summer, we monitored the stream’s temperature throughout the summer. It isn’t so much the problems that exist right now, as the potential. These streams cannot warm up very much without decimating the fish. The temperatures were right at the threshold where you lose your salmon and trout. We have to keep these streams stabilized, in terms of cleanliness and temperature, or we’ll lose the fish,” he said.

Volunteers were already monitoring Cortes islands streams in 2013, when some of them asked the Friends of Cortes Island (FOCI) to establish a formal project

The local Streamkeeper’s program was launched in October, 2014, after 16 people, including Cec Robinson and his wife Christine, participated in a training course.

They surveyed the salmon as they returned to spawn that fall.

Before we started our interview, Cec set some live trapps in Hansen’s creek. We checked them afterward. There were no fish. Cec said this has happened before.

He is more concerned about the fact there is less water in the creek than is normal for this time of year.

2015 was the warmest summer on record, and 2016 is expected to be even warmer summer.

Dec Robinson checking a live traps in Hanson's creek - Roy L Hales photo
Cec Robinson checking a live trap in Hanson’s Creek – Roy L Hales photo

I delved more into this topic, interviewing more people, in the Deep Roots Initiative program “Where Have All the Salmon Gone?” broadcast on April 7, 2017.

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