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Will BC Hydro be charged for the thousands of fish killed in Squamish?

Officially, DFO says investigation is ongoing after thousands of spawning pink salmon died on the Cheakamus River Oct. 1, but local conservationists say they believe no enforcement action will be taken.
Stranded fish on Oct. 1.
Officially, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) says it is still investigating what local conservationists call a devastating fish kill on the Cheakamus River after a BC Hydro ramping event at the end of September. 

Previously, BC Hydro said in a statement that on Sept. 29, it “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.”

Two years before, a similar event occurred, though fewer fish were killed in that 2019 event. 

Conservationists and the Squamish Nation spoke out after this recent stranding that DFO says killed more than 7,000 fish, many spawning pink salmon.

Local conservationists argue the number killed is likely much higher.

Nation representatives had worked with BC Hydro in various ways since the 2019 incident and had expected better, a statement read. 

“For something like this to happen despite efforts since 2019 has shaken our confidence that this Cheakamus facility can ever operate in a manner that recognizes the value of Indigenous ways in respecting and protecting our lands, waters, and the life within it,” read the Nation’s statement on Oct. 12.

Chessy Knight, president of the Squamish River Watershed Society, told The Squamish Chief she wanted to see the DFO bring charges against the Crown corporation as a result of the recent fish deaths, which she witnessed on the river on Oct. 1. 

Not charging the company would send the wrong message not only to BC Hydro but to other industrial companies, she said. 

"If you can kill this many fish, it is almost like a licence to do what you want," she said. "DFO puts a lot of effort into policing commercial harvesters and recreational fishers, but when you can kill... 10,000 fish, I mean how do you say what a commercial fisherman is doing or what a recreational fisherman is doing is worse?" 

Knight says this recent stranding could have been avoided if BC Hydro had raised the minimum flow of water left in the river after the ramping event. Going forward, she would also like to see the company shut down operations for three weeks during peak pink spawning and pass daily inflows into the reservoir over the dam. 

BC Hydro has an authorization — permission — for its Squamish operation through its Fisheries Act Authorization, which is vague on the number of fish that can be killed, Knight said, and so she hopes there can be an opportunity to revise the authorization as part of the current required BC Hydro Cheakamus Water Use Plan Order Review

"Without bounds on the magnitude of an acceptable fish kill, how do we know when BC Hydro has killed more fish than is ‘acceptable?'" Knight said.

What exactly does DFO say?

Asked what enforcement BC Hydro was facing for the recent stranding, a spokesperson for DFO said the federal regulator is actively engaged on the issue of fish stranding on the Cheakamus River. 

“The department is currently compiling and evaluating information related to the spill and subsequent ramp-down between Sept. 30 and Oct. 2, 2021, including BC Hydro’s response to the resulting fish stranding. Upon completion of that review, DFO will determine Fisheries Act compliance and respond through enforcement action or other regulatory response, as appropriate.”

The spokesperson noted that reports received to date indicate that fish salvage crews recorded a total of 8,567 adult pink salmon stranded, of which 1,243 (15%) were subsequently salvaged and returned to the river, resulting in approximately 7,324 mortalities.

“DFO continues to work with BC Hydro, the province of B.C., Squamish Nation, and local stakeholders in a collaborative process to assess and mitigate fish stranding on the Cheakamus River. This includes improved engagement with BC Hydro on operations planning in response to storm events, and increased fish salvage efforts during ramp downs. We have noted a much-improved communication and mitigation response from BC Hydro over two more recent spills later in October and into November.”

Crossed lines?

News of the ongoing investigation shocked Dave Brown, chair of the Squamish to Lillooet Sport Fishing Advisory Committee who said he was told by a DFO representative at its October meeting that no charges were being pursued.

Knight was also at that meeting and confirmed this as well. 

“I am so mad about this and upset,” Brown said, adding that in 2019, conservationists were angry, but thought things would improve thereafter.

"If one angler went down and fished with a barbed hook, he gets ticketed. If he kept one salmon and made a mistake, let’s say they thought it was a coho and kept a chum or something, no excuse, you are getting a ticket,” Brown added.

The Gorbuscha Channel channel near the Cheakamus Centre was also dewatered and filled with silt in the recent event and Brown said all the fish in it were killed.

"And that was specifically built for pinks. Gorbuscha means pink salmon in Latin," he noted. 

He said he believes there has to be some enforcement on BC Hydro for them to actually change their operations. 

"In the future, why would they follow the rules when they are getting away with it? Fish aren't going to be the priority." 

Brown acknowledged BC Hydro has been better at communicating with conservation groups what is happening around rain events since the latest fish kill, but said that isn't enough. 

"You have to pay the price of the damage they caused. If a company spilled stuff into the river, there would be accountability, but if a company changes the water levels, it has a licence to kill an unlimited number of fish? They have a licence to kill at a time when every salmon is critical and so much is being done by the local community?" 

Brown said that local conservation groups have done a lot of work to bring back pink salmon to the river since the BC Hydro Water Use Plan was being drafted a couple of decades ago.

"At the time, they were telling us pinks weren't in the river because that is how low the population had gotten," he said. "The community worked to bring them back... to have a pink recovery. Pinks are not just critical as pinks, they have a huge importance to the rest of the river. They feed juvenile steelhead, they feed juvenile chinook, coho, Dolly Varden, rainbow trout. All the nutrients that go into the river fertilize the river... They also feed a number of different species, bears, even deer eat salmon, trees — losing that, it is not only the fish, but it is also a loss to the entire environment and it is just unacceptable."  

What an environmental lawyer says

“As we have seen with the Mount Polley mine disaster and innumerable other environmental catastrophes, there is no principle of law that requires a government to enforce its own laws,” said Deborah Curran, associate professor in the Faculty of Law and School of Environmental Studies executive director at the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria. 

“Governments have almost complete discretion as to whether to choose to enforce or not. Enforcement is, in a way, a political decision that is also related to whether there are the resources (staff time and equipment) to enforce. There is not a specific condition needed to enable enforcement except direction within the federal and provincial governments and resources to enable enforcement,” she added in an email to The Chief. 

“We are seeing some enforcement with large-scale ongoing pollution that has other political ramifications, such as the cross border pollution in the Columbia River from the Elk Valley coal mines,” she noted.

What does MLA Jordan Sturdy say?

MLA Jordan Sturdy, who has long been looped in on fish issues in the corridor said that there is an understanding that some fish will inevitably die from ramping. 

"It is just the way it is. It happens naturally as well," he said, adding that BC Hydro does have to deal with significant rain events, like this Monday, when Squamish was pummelled by a significant storm.

The issue is that this is the second time such a large number of fish were killed. 

"These are spawners — this is the fry next spring. So, the idea that that number was involved in an incident like this, I don't see how it can be acceptable. I am concerned that Hydro didn't seem to learn a lot from the last go around. There was a lot of work that took place there — a lot of post-event assessment and commitments to do things differently."

Sturdy acknowledged that changing its protocol for the fish will likely cost money for the Crown corporation, but he said it is increasingly hard to justify the fish kills. 

"I can't understand how that cost can be acceptable." 

He said he would be "disappointed" if BC Hydro was being treated differently by DFO than anybody else who created an issue in local waters.

Back to DFO

The Chief went back to the DFO and requested a follow-up response. Questions in this request included when a final decision on enforcement would be made and what consequences — if any — BC Hydro could face.

The newspaper also inquired as to whether DFO has ever charged an industrial operation for fish kills.

In response, the spokesperson for the DFO said, “While an investigation is ongoing, we can’t comment further at this time.” 

The spokesperson added that he would be in touch when more information was available.

What does BC Hydro say?

For its part, a spokesperson for BC Hydro said it understands the impact the death of so many fish has had. 

"We acknowledge the impact it has had on community members and our staff,” the spokesperson said, adding that changes have been made since the event in 2019 and will be made after the late September event and subsequent feedback from conservationists. 

"In planning for this year’s flow reductions on the Cheakamus River, we applied the Cheakamus Adaptive Stranding Protocol (CASP) principles. These principles were informed by engagement with First Nations, agencies and stakeholders and years of intensive study, and inform all our ramp down activities. We also implemented additional mitigation measures to reduce adult fish stranding. As a result, it was disappointing to see the number of stranded fish that we saw on Oct. 1,” the spokesperson said. 

There are a few key considerations to take into account regarding the early October spilling and ramp down event, Hydro said. 

“The first is that the pink salmon run on the Cheakamus River, by many accounts, this year was larger than 2019. On the one hand, the larger run is good news as we share the interest around sustainable and healthy salmon populations. On the other hand, the larger run does present a greater challenge when storms occur, and spill and ramp down are required. The second key consideration is that, because of the size and intensity of the storm we were dealing with, the flow reduction and resulting dewatered area was much larger than it was in 2019."

The combination of the larger run and the larger flow reduction resulted in the approximately 7,000 fish being stranded, the spokesperson said, adding that on the positive side, more fish were salvaged than in 2019.

After recent discussions with First Nations, stakeholders, and agencies, BC Hydro says it has incorporated new learnings to its ramp-down approach to better protect fish. These practices have been implemented for the additional ramp-down events since. 

"First, we are ensuring that most of the ramp downs will occur during the day to allow for improved access to fish. This will allow better response to stranding areas as they emerge. Secondly, we are ensuring that field crews are in close contact with our operations staff to be able to pause ramp downs based on observations in the field and have additional crews available to support efforts as needed. In addition, we are significantly increasing the number of monitoring and salvage crews on the river. As noted, we have applied these practices to the subsequent spill and ramp down events that occurred in October and November since Oct. 1 and there has been little to no stranding."

BC Hydro is also now sending a weekly operations forecast email to stakeholders and hosting pre-spill engagement meetings with First Nations, agencies and stakeholders to discuss ramp down approaches before we begin a ramp down event whenever possible.

"Managing fish stranding during storms continues to be challenging, particularly during large spawning events. We are committed to learning and adapting our protocols to minimize fish stranding."

**Please note, this story has been updated since it was first posted to include comments from Deborah Curran.



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