Drought, low water levels in river force Cowichan Tribes to halt salmon fishery

Cowichan Tribes have stopped fishing for chinook salmon because low water in the Cowichan River is preventing fish from entering the river to spawn.

“The fish just aren’t able to get into the river and they’re gathering in the estuary,” said former band manager and chief Ernie Elliott.

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Band members usually catch between 1,000 and 5,000 chinook, depending on the size of the run, Elliott said.

The salmon represent more than a way of replenishing the freezer, said Elliott, who grew up beside the river.

“It’s a cultural thing as well. We believe the salmon were sent here to feed us and we do appreciate that the salmon gave their lives to sustain us,” he said.

Chinook are having a tough time in the estuary, as many are being picked off by seals and sea lions.

“They don’t eat the whole fish, they just grab the eggs,” Elliott said.

The Cowichan Tribes hatchery has gathered sufficient eggs to sustain the run, and hatchery employees are working with Fisheries and Oceans to transport fish to spawning grounds.

Biologists are swimming the river this weekend looking at the distribution and health of the salmon that have made it into the river, said Rodger Hunter, a member of the Cowichan Water Board.

The weir between Cowichan Lake and the river, which has a water licence held by Catalyst Paper, has allowed some water to be released, but that supply is likely to dry up by the end of the month unless there is rain. Controversy over the province’s decision to release water earlier in the year is continuing to grow.

“We had to dump water right into early August. We would be in really good shape now if we hadn’t done that,” Hunter said.

Since 2008, the province has stuck to a rule dictating the amount of water that can be retained behind the weir, and has suggested that the Cowichan Valley Regional District should apply for a water storage licence if it wants to ensure a summer and fall water supply.

“The province does not believe it should unilaterally alter long-standing agreements on water usage in the area, but is willing to help facilitate a community-derived solution, endorsed by local government with the proper water licences in place,” says an emailed statement from the Forests Ministry.

However, the CVRD is worried about the financial implications of applying for a water-storage licence.

Some people believe that, as the ministry is responsible for fisheries and wildlife protection, they should be fulfilling that mandate, Hunter said.

Under the B.C. Water Act, the province can take out a water-storage licence for conservation, he said.

“If they are going to manage flows in the river, they need to be doing a better job,” Hunter said. “It doesn’t make sense letting that water go.”

Meanwhile, an alliance including the CVRD, Cowichan Tribes, Catalyst, Cowichan Stewardship Roundtable, B.C. Wildlife Federation, Cowichan Lake and River Stewardship Society, Quamichan Watershed Roundtable and Cowichan Watershed Board has formed to try to convince the province to “manage infrastructure more effectively to reduce the risk of inadequate fall flows.”

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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