Shellfish harvesting has been banned in Cowichan Bay since the 1970s due to pollution, something Cowichan Tribes Chief Harvey Alphonse calls "shameful."
An enormous effort involving government agencies, forest companies, conservation groups and First Nations aims to clean the bay and reopen shellfish harvesting by 2020.
"Those clams are the canary in the coal mine," Alphonse said in a statement.
"When we can eat them again, we will have come a long way toward cleaning up this magnificent watershed."
This week, the Cowichan Valley Regional District and the Cowichan Tribes announced a 2 1 /2-year, $200,000 project that will begin the process of identifying contaminants and their sources and cleaning up Cowichan Bay and the two rivers that drain into it.
The first step will be taking water samples upstream from Cowichan Bay to determine a baseline. In its first year, the project will focus on the lower watershed. Sampling and monitoring will then expand to Cowichan Lake. DNA analysis will be among the tools used to identify pollutants.
The Cowichan Watershed Partnership Project "is intended to assess the watershed to figure out where we need to set priorities," said John Deniseger, head of the environmental quality section of the provincial Environment Ministry.
Success depends on all the stewardship groups and 13 other partners having a role, he said.
"A number of things have to happen," Deniseger said. "There is no one thing by itself. It's about cumulative effects, which means you have to have cumulative solutions."
The headwaters of the 47kilometre Cowichan River are in the Vancouver Island Range around Cowichan Lake, and the watershed drains an area close to 1,000 square kilometres in size.
The Cowichan River supports sports and commercial fish species, including coho, chum and chinook salmon, as well as steelhead and trout. It also provides water for domestic use, irrigation and recreational users.
The Koksilah River, which also drains into Cowichan Bay, is 44 kilometres long with a watershed encompassing 300 square kilometres. It also supports various salmon species and provides water for industrial, domestic and irrigation uses.
The Cowichan River is one of the most significant rivers on Vancouver Island, Deniseger said, and is worth the effort to clean up.
The shellfish are an important indicator that more can be done, he said. "Water runs downhill and ultimately runs into the bay," he said. "It's about many small sources of contamination."
One of the major players is the Joint Utilities Board, which runs Duncan's sewage-treatment system. The board has committed to get the wastewater treatment discharge out of the Cowichan River, Deniseger said.
Jean Crowder, MP for Nanaimo-Cowichan, said Thursday that the partners' agreement to work together is "a really important first step."
The next will be determining a plan, working out strategies and looking for funds.
It's unclear what role the federal government will play, said Crowder, until the new fish regulations that are part of Bill C-38 - the omnibus budget-implementation bill that included changes to the Fisheries Act - are announced.
"Bill C-38 definitely is going to change the way we look at fish habitat," she said.
© Copyright 2013