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24th September 2021
...continued from Part 1

In March, Norwegian salmon farming company Cermaq, 14 of 20 salmon farms in Clayoquot Sound, applied for a provincial permit to dump nearly one million litres of a sea lice pesticide into the region’s waters to deal with ongoing infestations.

Several salmon populations have declined by over 80 per cent within Clayoquot Sound, Hutchinson said. The Tranquil River in Tla-o-qui-aht territory historically saw 35,000 Chum returning in the 1950s, but saw only 5,391 returned this year.

When it comes to wild salmon populations, it’s a competition of “which one is doing the worst,” she said.

“Unfortunately, it’s a race to the bottom.”

Habitat restoration is “low-hanging fruit” to assist salmon immediately while things like policy change around forestry practices, climate change, hatcheries and aquaculture take longer, Hutchinson said.

“Every salmon nest (which is called a redd), contains upwards of several hundred to several thousand eggs. If we can protect that one redd and help it produce as many fish as possible, that alone can be key to significantly changing our annual returns,” she said.

But right now, because of the state of the watershed, the rivers can represent a threat to returning fish, rather than a safe refuge. “These watersheds in a degraded state are actually a sink for coho salmon,” she said.

But the work in the Bedwell River is turning that trend around. Hutchinson said their team with the Ahousaht saved more coho in the river than returned to during the entire previous year.

‘We need to invest in restoration like we invested in resource extraction’

Smulders said keeping salmon healthy is central to the health of the whole watershed.

Salmon feed invertebrates in the streams and whales in the ocean, and many other species. They bring back marine nutrients from the ocean, so that when they spawn and die, they act as fertilizer in the watershed. When bears, eagles and wolves drag salmon carcasses into the forest, they fertilize trees, giving back to the very trees that stabilized the stream they grew up in.

“A cedar tree now has these amazing marine-derived nutrients that help to make it grow into a huge, beautiful tree,” Smulders said.

Hutchinson explained restoration is not just building some pools, but restoring processes that should be naturally occurring, and the work should be led by local First Nations. She said more money needs to be put into restoration.

“We need to invest in restoration like we invested in resource extraction so many years ago,” she said.

A July study called Working for Watersheds, published by the BC Freshwater Legacy Initiative, the POLIS Water Sustainability Project and the BC Water Funders Collaborative, found there is a huge social and economic benefit in supporting the ‘watershed sector,’ which is defined as “jobs that directly support better outcomes for healthy watersheds.” The report’s analysis found the watershed sector supported more than 45,000 jobs in British Columbia in 2019 through restoration efforts, urban and industrial water management and educational programs.

The report writers advocate the province establish a $100 million per year Watershed Security Fund to help grow the sector.

“From agriculture, to tourism, to mining, to clean energy, the province’s economy and wealth directly depend on clean fresh water and functioning watersheds,” the report reads.

The report estimated that if the status quo continues, the watershed sector is set up to add 7,400 new jobs and contribute $767 million to B.C.’s gross domestic product by 2030. But if the province launched a Watershed Security Fund for ten years, it predicts that would create an additional 13,000 jobs and contribute an additional $1.3 billion to B.C.’s gross domestic product by 2030.

“As British Columbians suffer from the impacts of wildfires, heat waves and droughts, communities will continue to see threats to water security. We cannot afford to wait and must protect water and watersheds in communities throughout B.C.,” provincial Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau said in a statement responding to the report.

In an Aug. 31 press release, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy promised that the 60 Healthy Watershed Initiative projects undertaken this year with the province’s $27 million stimulus will “contribute to B.C.’s commitment to develop a Watershed Security Strategy and Fund,” and that nature-based climate solutions are part of its draft climate preparedness and adaptation strategy it will release in 2022.

To keep salmon and the watershed healthy, Charlie would like to see a transition from fish farms to more sustainable aquaculture like oyster, mussels and kelp farms, with First Nations getting the chance to be leaders in these industries. He also wants to see more funding for Indigenous stewardship and more Guardians hired.

“I want to keep what we have — just the love of the land, knowing where you come from,” he said.

Charlie said restoring Bedwell Sound is significant for him because it was once home to the Ahousaht village Huuʔinmitis, where his great-great-grandfather was born and raised. Ahousaht people later gathered to live on Flores Island northeast of Tofino.

“It’s always a little surreal going up and doing what we’re doing and trying to keep the ecosystem running, knowing that that’s what they were doing thousands of years ago, and my grandfather … and knowing I’m walking on the same land he did, doing essentially the same things they did,” Charlie said.

And Charlie has high hopes for the Bedwell River, because he has seen the positive impacts of restoration elsewhere. After restoring Anderson Creek in Ahousaht territory with the Central Westcoast Forest Society, he said the creek was “like night and day.” They built pools, spawning beds and riffles. He said they stood in silence and just took the scene in.

“I think it’s the perfect place for salmon to go now,” he said.

“It’s just a matter of waiting.”