A Case For Protecting Habitat

Yesterday I reached my tolerance limit for a keyboard when my dog kept looking at me with a pouty face and the emails just wouldn’t stop flowing. Enough! Off we went for a long walk along one of my all time favourite little rivers, the Englishman.

 

Apart from digital burn out I had a couple of other reasons for the walk. One was to assess the changes that would inevitably have resulted from a historic flow event on Jan 29. The Water Survey of Canada web site told me the highest flow ever measured occurred just after midnight on that date. I felt compelled to grab my camera and visit a few sites where I have photos going back to the early 1970s to compare with what 2018 had delivered.

 

My other reason for the walk related to a conference call in which I had participated the evening before. A subject brought forward on that call was a group conceived a dozen years ago and known as the Steelhead Futures Caucus. At conception that group consisted of back bench Liberal members of the Provincial Legislative Assembly (MLAs). Looking back over the history of the Caucus I find it hard to forget it was on their watch that the provincial agency responsible for steelhead was eviscerated and buried in the deepest recesses of the forest management agency. Worse still, responsibility for liaising with the federal government re steelhead interception fisheries was solidified as the purview of the agency charged with licensing fish processors and marketing seafood. There was an abundance of process on their watch though. A history of Caucus non-performance didn’t dissuade our conference call voice from extolling its virtues and campaigning for strengthening relations between it and the steelhead advocacy community. I’m left to scratch my head given the reality these steelhead saviours accomplished virtually nothing when in power and obviously have even less influence now that they are on the outside looking in.

 

So, how does this link to my walk up the Englishman? Well, one of the major steelhead related undertakings of recent times was a program known as the Greater Georgia Basin Steelhead Recovery Plan (GGBSRP). That Caucus group was a strong proponent, although the money involved did not come through them or their Liberal masters. It was good public relations to be seen as a central player though. They still like to hold up their strong endorsement of the GGBSRP as pivotal in the steelhead management scenario. The premise on which the GGBSRP was sold was that freshwater habitat improvements were critical to maintaining and enhancing steelhead smolt production to offset persistent declines in ocean survival and sustain stocks until ocean survival improved. I was never supportive at the time because I understood from many days afield on some of the rivers targeted that it was impossible to “fix” habitat that continued to be devastated by the impacts of logging. The well worn line that an ounce or prevention is worth a pound of cure never entered the consciousness of those involved.

 

The Englishman was one of the rivers targeted for relatively massive expenditures to install rock and log structures that were supposed to stabilize habitat and create premium rearing space for juvenile steelhead. My question of the day was why would you build luxury condominiums in a ghost town? Such nay saying did not go down well with the army of zealots involved. Yesterday’s walk can be told in pictures. Meanwhile, the GGBSRP is a distant memory and the Englishman River that was closed to fishing for conservation purposes almost 20 years ago remains closed………unless you’re one of the favoured few who gets to go bait fishing there and tag steelhead under the guise of research on the efficacy of snorkel surveys as a population estimation technique. (I’ve asked for the reports a number of times but have yet to receive a response.)

 

And now for that walk down memory lane. My baseline begins in 1972.

 

Nothing special about the picture other than to note I’m standing near the edge of the river and catching fish a rod length away. There was no such thing as an extensive bar of constantly changing composition between the edge of the river and the upland behind me. Note the continual expansion of the clay bank over the time series below.

 

Nothing special about this picture either. It was taken about 50 m downstream from the former picture. Note the configuration of the far bank and compare it to the time series of photos that follow.

 

The Claybanks Run as it existed in 1979. It was not pristine by any means but it had maintained its relative stability from 1972 until the time of this photo.

 

The Greater Georgia Basin Steelhead Recovery Plan Arrives

 

Fast forward to 2011. Big changes have occurred.

 

One year later looking upstream. Logs of this size are now deposited along various points on the river on every significant freshet event.

 

And downstream.

 

The upstream view in Jan, 2015. Some new logs to add to the temporary diversity.

 

Looking downstream, Jan 2015

 

Moving along to 2016.

 

 

This one is instructive. Note the logs and rock at centre. They are all connected by cable and the collection of them is buried to an unknown depth by substrate mobilized during the Jan 29, 2018 flood.

 

A close up of that enhancement structure installed at some point upstream during the heyday of the Greater Georgia Basin Steelhead Recovery Plan implementation. The arrows point to remnants of the cable that presumably held the structure together and attached it to the bank. The only uncertainty here is how far that structure travelled before being deposited and half buried where it was on Feb 8,2018. Where will it be after the next freshet?

 

Perhaps the Steelhead Futures Caucus should devote some attention to an independent review of the costs and benefits of the program that they so heartily endorsed. More importantly, they might also want to turn their minds to the value of protecting habitat before it unravels to the extent that the Englishman River has.

Comments 6

  • Thanks for this Bob. It is good for the soul to get out to the old haunts to see for oneself the current state of affairs. Encouraged or disappointed, it is always informative. As I write this, my cup o’ tea sits atop a cardboard coaster handed out by the GGBSRP folks some many years ago. I suppose that is a collectors item now.
    In 2015, as the result of another catastrophic high water event, I penned the following as a letter to the Editor of the local PQ News. I also included a before and after close up pic for illustration.
    “250 year-old Matriarch Topples.
    Recent high water events on the Englishman river have conspired to bring down one of the few remaining old growth Douglas fir trees in the upper estuary. This grand arboreal matriarch spanned over five-feet through at the butt. Without actually counting the growth rings, that tree is an estimated two-hundred plus years old.
    This magnificent tree was once living well back in the forest; firmly rooted in the rich alluvial soil of the river-bottom land. Over time and successive riverbank eroding floods the forest giant crept ever closer to the streambed, or more accurately, the streambed came closer to it. In the wee hours of December 8th., during a flood which was backed up by a high tide counter flow, the old Doug fir lost its grip in the waterlogged soil and toppled into the river. If it stays lodged there it will help create good fish habitat and will contribute to the overall wellbeing of the river; and it may help reduce further localized streambank erosion.
    Folks can go to see this great tree laying in repose alongside the river. A well travelled trail leads right to the tree through the Nature Trust of B.C. estuary park land at the end of Shelly road. Over time many other lesser trees have succumbed to the ravages of flood waters in this area and have ultimately been washed away to the ocean. Perhaps this big one is heavy enough to withstand future high waters and will be there for us and the fish to appreciate for some time to come.”
    Now that I re-read it, I am prompted to get back out there to see if that fallen Doug fir has been dislodged by the most recent flood.

  • A few years back I posted a little piece about the flow pattern changes that have occurred on the Klanawa. A little know stream very similar in some respects to the Englishman. Like the Englishman, up until only 20 years ago it too had some very important steelhead habitat that has somehow been forgotten during the years of environmental neglect imposed upon it by a spate of environmentally challenged politicians. Both federally and provincially.
    The point of my little assessment post, on a once BC centric fishing web site was to bring some attention to what can be done to protect key habitat that is still viable for steelhead and other essential species of West Coast Salmonidae in Vancouver Island streams. The web site was then bought out by interests in Toronto and I departed the scene, as it turned into Bass Masters classic style site with no concept whatsoever of what the West Coast is all about.
    Today I truly do not know if any winter fish still show up in the that little gem of a river or if even if the Coho still run up past the lower bridge. The essential rearing back channels are very quickly disappearing as they are on most streams because of the unrelenting winter flood deep scouring and summer droughts making entire system run sub surface, drying up back channels thus killing the few remaining smolts and fry.
    In the very same fashion we are quickly losing the steelhead and other key fish species on the San Juan, the Gordon, and the Nitinat.
    If the conservation of BC steelhead and all the species only had half the dollars being thrown around by the sport fishing industry that the bass fishing crowds have then just maybe the real plight of these magnificent fish and their habit would finally come into the spot light.
    Unfortunately to gain most so called “nature loving anglers” attention one still has to yard a fish out of the water and take pictures of the creature before anyone is interested in giving the state of the habitat the fish was frequenting a second thought.

    As to that I am considering starting a .org site for the sole purpose of voluntary stream assessment inventory. Because the government of BC has severely dropped the ball in this regard and has largely striven to obscure the information about the state of West Coast streams from easy access on the net.

    I am getting long in the tooth but I can still wade and float streams for perhaps a few more years.

    Keep the faith Bob, you are certainly not alone in understanding the need for a drastic change in the way we value BC river ecology.

    • Thanks for sharing these experiences Eric. Everyone I know from our generation who has any amount of experience on the rivers of Vancouver Island over any extended period has come to similar conclusions. We won’t go quietly!!!!

  • Good to hear you threw off the bonds of the keyboard and let your dog lead you to river reflections!
    Its depressing to think that those Liberal backbenchers could have been stage-managed into positions of ‘stroking’ the environmental groups at the time.
    Is it time to expose these politicos for having effectively screwed with legitimate environmental concerns for their desire to wear Liberal blinkers?
    I think an image of Mother Nature bent over with a lineup of politicos behind her, under the headline of “ME TOO”, with a list of MLA’s names with their time in office.
    If we can’t hold them to account for their performance, we can expose them for their attitude!

  • Eric wrote: “As to that I am considering starting a .org site for the sole purpose of voluntary stream assessment inventory.”
    You may be onto something there Eric. I for one have been chronologically collecting pictorial “evidence” over a number of years on various stream degradation related issues. I am sure more folks out there do the same. A central place for viewing this documentation could be useful. If for nothing else than as a publicly accessible record of what is going on out there. Pair up the photo series with factual data gleaned from open sources such as Water Survey of Canada water levels, add in GPS coordinates and a great show-and-tell presentation emerges.
    Do it.

  • “A case in point is the beautiful Englishman River, once home to the iconic steelhead trout and rated 20 years ago as one of the best rivers in B.C. Now almost completely devoid of life, and logging in the upper watershed is the most significant negative contributing factor.”

    https://www.bclocalnews.com/opinion/letter-as-the-trees-disappear-so-do-the-fish/

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