Drought conditions threatening B.C. salmon as river levels drop

Arabnews24.ca:Friday 21 July 2023 11:13 AM: Under a hot sun, lifelong fishermen Travis Heathman crosses an overpass above the Chilliwack River to scope out what's usually a popular fishing hole — but the water isn't flowing as quickly or as deep as it usually does at this time of year.

Rock islands not typically seen until the fall are exposed, and the 68-year-old can't spot any fish.

"I spend a lot of time on this river, and I'm kind of concerned about the water levels right now. They're quite a bit lower than they normally would be, and that doesn't bode well for the returning salmon."

B.C. is currently grappling with an extended drought which has left two-thirds of the province's water basins at drought Level 4 or Level 5. The provincial scale goes from zero to five.

The Lower Mainland basin, which includes the Fraser Valley, is at Level 4, which means adverse impacts to ecosystems are likely.

On Thursday, during a briefing, the River Forecast Centre (RFC) reported 74 of roughly 350 river monitoring stations across the province measured record low flows, including a number of stations in the Fraser Valley.

"This is unprecedented," said Dave Campbell, RFC head.

"The key concern is being in the dry period. We are very much anticipating to see the ongoing decline of flows, particularly as we go through the next month or two here," he added.

Chilliwack River at Vedder Park; The exposed banks and big rock islands are not usually seen until later in August. Also a popular fishing spot and one local fisherman said that the low levels make it more difficult to catch the chinook that is caught here.
The River Forecast Centre says a third of its stream monitoring stations have recorded record-low flows. (Justine Boulin/CBC)

Fishermen like Heathman fear this will be particularly challenging for fall salmon runs.

"There's concern by the time fall comes around, September, when the pink salmon, the coho, and the chum show up, that we're going to not have a lot of water here, and the water temperatures are going to be a lot warmer than they are right now, which doesn't do the salmon very much good," he said.

"A lot of these fish may die before they ever get a chance to spawn, which would be a real shame."

Fish swim in water
The Fraser is the world's largest salmon-producing river. (CBC)

Mounting challenges

The concerns are echoed by researcher Scott Hinch who heads the University of British Columbia's Pacific Salmon Lab.

He says while current drought conditions might not return each year, overall, they highlight a trend that's become more apparent over the past two decades.

"It's certainly not the first rodeo that we've experienced, and it certainly won't be the last," he said. "I think we're just seeing the increased frequency of both flood events and drought occurrences that we all knew was coming based on climate-based projections."

Hinch said it's too early to tell if any habitat will completely dry up, referencing an incident in Bella Bella last year where tens of thousands of salmon were found dead.

He said impacts will vary by region with some species more susceptible than others, but efforts should be made to preserve cool freshwater where salmon can survive.

Connie Chapman with B.C.'s Ministry of Forests said the province is considering water-use restrictions to support Pacific fisheries if voluntary reductions don't help increase river flows.

The ministry says assessments will happen at the regional level, and fishery closures can happen in the event of low streamflows and high stream temperatures.

A fisherman with his line in the blue waters of a river bordered by a rocky shore on either side.
The Chilliwack River at Vedder Park. The exposed banks and big rock islands are not usually seen until later in August. A popular fishing spot, one local fisherman said that low water levels make it more difficult to catch the chinook that are usually here. (Justine Boulin/CBC)

River woes

With levels dropping in some favoured Fraser Valley fishing holes, Heathman says it has pushed more anglers to target the remaining deep pools.

"[The fish] don't have a lot of protection because there's not a lot of deep water, so they're getting concentrated in small areas," he said. "And that's a concern, too, because they get pounded on by the sports guys."

Isaiah Malanchuk was among a crowd of fishermen at a deep pool beneath the Vedder Bridge in Chilliwack on Wednesday afternoon.

"I haven't been seeing as much fish come through as I'd like to see," said Malanchuk. "Ï feel like they don't have the confidence to want to push up from the mouth of the river because it's too low."

"All you can do is pray for some rain."

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