The usually-reserved Squamish environmental scientist Chessy Knight choked up moments after viewing the dead and dying fish stranded along the Cheakamus River on Friday, Oct. 1.
“It is really bad,” she said, her voice cracking.
The fish kill was a result of a BC Hydro ramp down Thursday night into Friday when the Crown corporation reduced its spill release from the Daisy Lake Reservoir into the river in response to a rainstorm.
Knight, who is president of the Squamish River Watershed Society (SRWS), said the storm was predictable and BC Hydro should have known that the pink salmon were still active in the river.
Knight observed the die-off from the pedestrian bridge area at Misty’s Lane, which is about one kilometre above Jack Webster Bridge.
“It was bad in 2019 and this was worse,” she said. “At the one site I was at, there [were] more fish over a longer area — a kilometre that I could walk,” she said.
The fish she saw were predominantly adult pink spawners — about 40% of the dead pinks had not spawned — but there were also juvenile steelhead spotted at other stranding sites.
There were at least five other stranding sites in total, she said.
She estimates all told, there were up to 5,000 dead fish.
Starting on Friday, stewards and volunteers tried to salvage what they could, but, Knight said, they could not save many of the adult fish.
BC Hydro told The Chief it had two crews deployed on Friday morning and three crews on Saturday to move fish that were at risk of being stranded and to collect information to support the ramp-down plan as it moved into a second day.
The large fish are hard to salvage as they have to be taken from where they are stranded across gravel bars and into deeper water as quickly as possible, Knight said, estimating that the five conservationists she was with were likely able to save 300 fish.
This isn’t the first time there’s been a massive fish kill related to BC Hydro’s operation.
How BC Hydro ramps water levels after storms has been an issue of concern for local conservationists for many years.
Stressing she was being conservative, Knight said there have been at least six large fish kills from ramping since 2018.
“I think that my emotional frustration came from: we were just here two years ago and it took a lot of negotiating to get BC Hydro to donate to... Tenderfoot Creek Hatchery to do a pink spawner supplementation program for this to compensate for the pink kill from last [time],” Knight said on Monday, reflecting on her reaction Friday.
“They had just completed that and it was kind of a good news thing... and now here we are. They are going to have to do it again.”
Conservationists understand some fish will be killed as a byproduct of the utility’s operation. The number of fish killed has always been at issue, which Knight and other conservationists say is unnecessarily high.
What does BC Hydro say?
BC Hydro told The Chief that staff managed increased inflows to Daisy Lake Reservoir in response to weather events last week, which is typical, especially in the fall following storms.
“On Sept. 29, we increased the spill release on the Cheakamus River to manage increased inflows to Daisy Lake Reservoir as a result of weather events. Storm inflows ended up higher than expected, resulting in a larger spill than anticipated,” the written statement said.
“Starting Sept. 30, we began to slowly reduce flows on the Cheakamus River as inflow levels decreased following the storm.”
The spokesperson stated that the ramp-down plan follows the protocols discussed previously with First Nations, stakeholders, and agencies developed through the Cheakamus Adaptive Stranding Protocol (CASP) over the past few years.
The plan is consistent with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) guidelines, BC Hydro says.
“It applies ramping rates with smaller changes over longer periods of time to allow fish movement from potential stranding sites.”
BC Hydro’s written statement, which was sent Friday night, said that crews would be on-site to monitor impacts and move any fish from areas “likely to be dewatered throughout the ramp down and over the weekend.”
The spokesperson said it was engaging with First Nations, stakeholders and agencies through the ramping process and will follow up after the event to debrief activities.
"We are committed in the CASP to use this information to improve our ramp down operations in the future.”
In a later exchange, the spokesperson acknowledged that while BC Hydro “implemented the recommendations from what [it had] learned over the last three years of intensive study, managing fish stranding during storms continues to be challenging, particularly during large spawning events.”
The company is committed to learning and adapting further, the spokesperson stated.
"As an example of our adaptive process, we modified the ramp down plan for day two on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning based on information from our first day of the ramp down. We changed the plan by reducing flows even slower and kept flows higher than originally planned to mitigate the risk of further stranding. This change minimized additional stranding and allows for more time to consult with the CASP technical committee on the steps required for the final stages of the ramp down.”
The technical committee meeting is set for this week.
What does DFO say?
A DFO spokesperson told The Squamish Chief it was notified in advance of a spill on the Cheakamus as part of its ongoing work with BC Hydro "to ensure the continued protection of fish and fish habitat."
"Shortly after the ramp down of water levels, DFO was notified of stranded fish in the area. DFO is working to determine more information about this incident. At this time, there are no further details to share."
The spokesperson declined to answer if the number of fish killed was within the acceptable limit for such an activity.
"We encourage members of the public to report any suspicious fishing activity or habitat violations by contacting the nearest Fisheries and Oceans Canada office, or by email at DFO.ORR-ONS.MPO@dfo-mpo.gc.ca, or by calling the 24-hour, toll-free Observe, Record Report line at 1-800-465-4336."
What could BC Hydro have done differently?
Knight and Squamish River Watershed executive director Edith Tobe both say that BC Hydro ramped down too far, meaning too much water was taken out of the river.
“When you cut so much of your river, it doesn’t matter how slow you go, when you cut the river more than in half, you are going to strand pink salmon because they don’t spawn in the main stem. They like to go into the side channels,” Knight said.
Both biologists say if BC Hydro had left just a little bit more water available to the fish, it would have saved many.
“They didn’t have to go so far. They could have left a little bit of water," Knight said.
She added that if they had about a six-to-eight-inch increase in the water level, the channel would not have gone dry. “The fish could still get in; the fish could still get out. So, to me, that is not a big ask of BC Hydro....
“Sure, ramp down so that you can produce power. I get it. But they did the same thing they did last time. They got greedy. They ramped down too much and didn’t leave enough water in the river.”
What is more, Knight, who is on BC Hydro’s CASP committee, says not all members of the committee were notified of the plan. Had she known, it might have changed the outcome, she said.
“We would have had the opportunity to comment,” she said. “I have done a ton of work with them; peer-reviewing things and going out on the river... and we are doing well. The CASP group is a good group and we are getting there, so it only makes sense to me that if you are going to plan this big ramp down, you would send this note out.”
She would have suggested that BC Hydro send folks out on the river to see how things were going for the fish once they started ramping.
“I would have said you need to leave a bit more water in and you need to go out and do some recon, and you need to see what is happening with the pinks.”
Tobe added that SRWS is able, when needed, to mobilize a strong volunteer base, including Squamish Streamkeepers and Squamish Nation members who could have at least salvaged more dying fish.
“It pulls on your heartstrings because we could have potentially helped get people out there first thing that morning, at least have them on alert that it could be an issue.’”
Why didn’t BC Hydro notify Knight and others on CASP
In a follow-up email exchange with a spokesperson from BC Hydro, the Crown corp told The Squamish Chief:
“While the timing of the events and public safety considerations didn’t allow for notification to all stakeholders before implementing the operational changes in response to this event, BC Hydro was able to implement key recommendations from past events.”
Tobe said what has yet to be understood is the ripple effect of the recent ramping on other areas.
“There’s a lot of what we call off-channel habitat at the...Cheakamus Centre. A big portion of those channels were all impacted by them going too low, too quickly.... So, all the fish that have spawned in there are covered in layers and layers and layers of sediment.”
Had there been more water flowing through the channels that would have rinsed the silt through, Tobe said.
There will be mortality with those fish too, she said.
Tobe added when BC Hydro talks about following stranding protocols, that isn’t something entirely positive.
“These are not good protocols, let’s just be really, really frank about it,” she said, noting that Knight has been working to have them changed.
“For this situation with the adults — and we have been raising this since the pinks started returning to the river in 2003 — BC Hydro has never given consideration to the pink runs that they need to, with their base flows.”
The protocols aren’t fully developed yet, Knight said.
The only gain that has been made to date is protecting the juvenile fish on the gravel bars.
“We still can’t protect juvenile fish in pools that become isolated. That comes down to the same problem with the adult spawners.”
This issue hasn’t been solved with the protocols currently in place, both women said.
The solution is leaving a little more water in the river, they reiterated.
Knight said she would like to see enforcement action taken by DFO.
“I don’t see how [BC Hydro] are going to respond to anything else,” she said, adding that she also worries that other industrial companies are watching BC Hydro get away with these fish kills and not be punished for them.
“If I am in an industrial operator somewhere else in B.C. and I see this, and I know they are never charged, why would I worry about getting charged?”
Tobe noted that much work is being done to improve salmon survival across the board, including the removal of a good chunk of the Squamish Spit, so this die-off, which seems unnecessary, is another blow.
“It is another blow and the hubris of BC Hydro.... It doesn’t get that we are out on the river. We care about the river; we care about the fish. We are the stewards, and we do it not out of any personal gain or obligation. We do it out of our passion and because we live here and [it’s done] out of responsibility.”
Both women said that while it is discouraging when these events happen, they aren’t going to stop lobbying the Crown corp to do better.
“We are not going to give up. We are not,” said Tobe.Though asked, the Squamish Nation did not comment for this story by press deadline.