You need to understand the past to navigate the future.
I moved to Vancouver Island too late to see the best it ever had to offer a steelhead fisherman. Major systems such as the Cowichan, San Juan and Salmon had already slipped badly from where they once stood but there was one that was still relatively intact. That was the Gold River. My first excursions there as an Island resident in the early 1970s allowed me to catch a glimpse of what I’d missed. Today the Gold has joined the same sorry list as those that went before.
My next book, Days of Rivers Past due out later this month, delves into the history of the Gold in some detail. All I’ll talk about here is what a snapshot in 2017 looks like. I’m inspired to do this after recent conversations with a couple of people, one outside government and one within. Those conversations were pursued after hearing about studies soon to be undertaken on that once magnificent river and its steelhead. It didn’t take much to see that an eleventh hour, light your hair on fire approach stemmed from a snorkel survey undertaken earlier this year when only one steelhead was observed by veteran snorkelers conducting their standard annual assessment. No one will assume (I hope) that one fish is a population estimate but it is certainly a barometer of the present versus the past. I no longer have access to the survey reports documenting what we saw while conducting similar index counts in the early 1980s but I recall one of those efforts came up with about 2,000 steelhead. I can still visualize several of the major holding areas where there were so many steelhead milling about it was impossible to get an accurate count.
What concerns me about the proposed multi year study proposal whose proponents are now seeking funding support is how no one is paying attention to the obvious. I’ll explain.
The first stop on recognizing the Gold River’s issues today is Google Earth. I encourage people to call it up and take a tour of the watershed. It has been logged extensively and intensively ever since the early 1960s. As has been the case for every major timber rich watershed on Vancouver Island, the logging started at tidewater and moved progressively upstream and upslope. Eventually there is enough tree cover removed that the capacity for the landscape to buffer the heavy rainfall events common to such places is destroyed. Rain on snow events typical of the November through January period are the worst. Fish habitat unravels as water gushes off unprotected hillsides carrying massive amounts of sediment and debris down engineered drainage routes and depositing everything in motion in what used to be prime steelhead rearing habitat.
At the other end of the annual hydrological cycle, summer, there are equally severe post canopy removal consequences. With no timber and root systems to retain moisture and soften temperature extremes, there is no protection from drought like conditions that inevitably occur. Critical late summer flows become lower and water temperatures rise. Low flows reduce space that territorial steelhead require and high temperatures constrain their metabolic performance and growth.
Reference to the Water Survey of Canada flow records helps illustrate the flow related problems. The 2015 records are the most instructive in terms of the summer flow circumstances.
The summer flows that year were the lowest ever in records dating back to 1956. That level was reached earlier than ever and persisted longer. My guess is the WSC gauge was installed in preparation for the soon to be built pulp mill at the mouth of the river. Pulp mills need assurance of adequate water supplies so it seems logical that was the rationale for gauging the stream, especially during the summer. The water intake for the mill is (was) very near tidewater and about a kilometer downstream from the gauge site. An important point with respect to flow measurements is they are taken downstream of all the major tributaries of the Gold – the Ucona, Upana, Heber and Muchalat rivers. Those familiar with that area will likely appreciate that less than 3 cubic meters of flow recorded at that point means much of the accessible steelhead rearing habitat in the Gold system is little more than wet pavement.
Another point to contemplate is the next two summers (2016 and 2017) saw flows at almost the same level as 2015, although not for as long. Three successive years of such conditions is not a recipe for a depressed steelhead population to even begin to recover. Comparison with the long term records indicates the low summer flows in recent years are roughly half of what they once were. I’ll be so bold as to suggest those late summer low flows are the single greatest factor constraining steelhead smolt production in the Gold system today.
On the high water side the WSC flow records are equally instructive. With the forest canopy removal as advanced as it now is, the buffering influence of an undisturbed landscape is gone. Anglers who have frequented the Gold and similarly treated watersheds are quick to recognize that rainfall and rain on snow events now see the river rise at a rates never before experienced. The drop in flow when rainfall stops is equally sharp. Peak flows may or may not be as high as historical records suggest but the rate of rise and fall is unprecedented and underscores the volatility and instability of the watershed.
Recent WSC data emphasizes the rate of rise and fall. The spike in flow in the figure below is the result of a rainfall event that was nowhere near a record for the area at that time of year. The hydrograph, however, displayed the highest ever flow recorded for the Gold River that early in the fall. The rate of increase and decline was remarkable and, to me, emphasizes the lost capacity of a landscape denuded of mature timber to buffer climatic events. The rise from 8-10 cms to more than 1300 cms in a matter of hours borders on unbelievable. The subsequent rate of decline is equally revealing. Had it not been for another round of rain 36 hrs after the event that produced the peak on Oct 16/17, the decline would have been more complete.
When all the signals are assembled they’re telling us the impacts of the devastating low flows of 2015 and the partial repeats in 2016 and 2017 are going to be with us for several more years. Smolt crops will undoubtedly have been poor in 2016 and 2017 and probably will be for one or two more years. We better pray for improved ocean survival in the near term or that one fish observation in 2017 will not be unique.
Of course, everyone is looking for the silver bullet here. There isn’t one. No one is going to restore anything approaching the natural hydrology of the Gold watershed. Nature could do that for us in 70 or 80 years if we downed tools today. And the chances are? There are probably lots of isolated little make work projects that could be undertaken but it just isn’t realistic to postulate that will make a detectable difference to steelhead production. Fixing broken habitat is orders of magnitude more difficult and costly than protecting it ever would have been. That isn’t a condemnation of those whose job it was in past to protect and conserve fish habitat in areas proposed for logging, nor is it one for those whose missionary zeal is now focused on “studies”. Everyone gets to play the cards they are dealt. Just don’t bet on anyone holding a winning hand. Go ahead, do those snorkel counts, do those juvenile abundance surveys, and scratch you head over the logging impacts if you ever get around to looking at them. Do all that for several years. But, before you do, think about how the results of any of those undertakings can be applied to improve the steelhead stock status.
One last word. I understand someone has flagged seal predation as an issue to be investigated. In my now 46 years of experience with Gold River steelhead, most of it involving boats on the lowermost river reaches, I have never seen a seal. If there is money to address seal predation on steelhead, I suggest it be directed at several well known and well documented situations of seal impacts on steelhead stocks on the east coast of Vancouver Island.