Ministry of Environment (MOE) officials have hired an independent consultant to review provincial biologists' steelhead recovery plans after hearing concerns from scientists, environmentalists, aboriginals, and area stakeholders.
Four University of British Columbia (UBC) scientists spoke out last Friday (March 31) supporting the recommendations for hatchery enhancement and the immediate collection of adult steelhead.
The presentation, led by fisheries scientist Josh Korman, suggested that in 2009 and 2010 the steelhead population in the Cheakamus will be dangerously low as three year classes of fish were killed during the 2005 CN caustic soda spill. Korman said the implementation of a hatchery program in 2006 may be the best solution as the number of spawning steelhead returning in 2007 may be too low.
"We could always do a fry take in the fall," said Brian Clark, MOE regional manager, from the audience, after explaining that he was merely present to hear the opinions and to report his findings to his team. "We're not going to decide today."
The MOE has proposed habitat-only enhancement using woody debris and nutritional supplementation."It's the ministry responsible for whether this works out or not," explained Clark. "A lot of people are criticizing us for not dealing with this openly."
A report of MOE studies, conclusions, and policies will be available within the next week, said Clark.
"I don't know any scientist that would back habitat restoration as the only means to recovery," said UBC Professor of Fisheries Carl Walters, one of the four scientists and UBC faculty members opposing the MOE's approach. "You'd have to be a pretty incompetent scientist to back anything that stupid."
Scientists including Korman and Walters along with UBC Assistant Professor of Fisheries Steve Martell and Professor of Zoology Eric Taylor disagree that improving habitat is the key for improving recovery.
Their arguments are backed by their own scientific data and the results of past recovery projects such as the Keogh River, which has cost the Province of BC $1 million in habitat improvements (such as nutrients and woody debris) but after 10 years "the [steelhead] population has not been large enough to see the signal through the noise".
While smaller streams and off-channel habitats have benefited from habitat restoration, scientists said that the Cheakamus River is much larger and highly productive suggesting that "habitat restoration on the Cheakamus River will produce no meaningful improvement".
"Ecosystems are complex and our ability to manipulate them is weak," said Korman. "Our best option is to admit uncertainty and not put all our eggs in one basket."
Korman suggests a hatchery plan, habitat recovery, and nutritional supplementation together.
Squamish Streamkeepers have expressed interest in opening the access to Brohm Creek as another way to enhance steelhead recovery. John Matson of Squamish Streamkeepers said he will bring up the matter at the next meeting."It would be criminal if we did not look at all viable options and give fair consideration," said Rod Clapton of the BC Federation of Drift Fishers, from the audience.
"We really should go ahead with this and catch the brood stock now," said Tony Toth, Executive Director of the British Columbia Wildlife Federation. "We're going to have a bloody baron river during the Olympics and the next years to come."
Toth expressed concerns about local community members and groups interfering in the process if the MOE doesn't take action soon but scientists present cautioned against any independent actions since the results may be disastrous.