A Helping Hand

By Reece Fowler

As a kiwi who was grew up beside one of New Zealand’s culturally and ecologically significant rivers, I’m always interested in how locals connect and interact with their home waters. My family may be recent immigrants to my home town compared to others in the wider watershed; however, for over 150 years my forefathers have farmed and worked to promote commerce and industry in my home town. My education and adult life have taken me away from my roots, and although I’ll always be strongly connected to my home river, I’m reminded that flowing water systems continue to carve out their existence from the mountain to the sea whether humans are there or not. It also stands true that rivers don’t need our intervention to continue performing their natural processes, as a flowing conduit within the water cycle, or providing habitat for the flora and fauna that reside within or near the river. In fact, the countless examples of human derived impacts to freshwaters suggest that we’re often the problem, and seldom the solution.

However, a significant natural impact affected the Seymour River, which flows from the Coast Mountains to the sea in North Vancouver BC, near where I now live and work, and made me reconsider this mindset. In December 2014, approximately 80,000 cubic meters of rock and debris slid into the river canyon and created a physical barrier to the movement of any fish migrating upstream or downstream within the watershed. This natural event also resulted in the creation of a small lake immediately upstream of the rockfall. It was the result of a section of rock face slowly eroding over time, before finally collapsing into the river canyon. Geotechnical engineers monitoring the rockfall indicated that the slide occurred through regular freeze and thaw conditions behind these boulders that loosened them up over time in a process known as ‘ice-jacking’. The slide took place approximately 5km upstream of the river mouth and left approximately 14km of river habitat upstream unavailable for spawning coho salmon and steelhead. A viable annual migration of these species within the Seymour would be lost if this natural barrier remained.

What compounds this natural obstacle is that the Seymour already has a human made barrier, the Seymour Falls Dam that prevents access to additional habitat in the upper watershed. Although the first water intakes on the river date back to 1907, the first dam was constructed in 1927 on the river. The existing Seymour Falls dam was completed in 1961 and is now one of three that supply drinking water to all of Metro Vancouver. In response to the rapid decline in salmonid stocks following construction of the dam, a small hatchery was installed by British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) and started operation in 1977. Ten years later, the Seymour Salmonid Society was established and took over the hatchery operations ever since. The Society is a non-profit organization that runs the Hatchery and Education Centre that aims to enhance salmon populations and encourage sustainable management of fisheries in the Seymour River.

So, when the rockfall occurred it created a natural barrier for the returning salmon and steelhead from reaching their spawning grounds. To overcome this, the Society has taken the lead in managing and fundraising for the rockslide mitigation project, with the aim of providing viable passage for these fish past the rockslide. The project is being undertaken within challenging working conditions and using funds raised through grant proposals and donations, to perform a drilling and rock breaking programme over a two to five-year period to restore migration for all species on the Seymour River. The river flows are also assisting through the movement of the blasted material during the higher flow periods expected during the Fall rains and Spring freshet.

As part of this project, funding was also procured from the Pacific Salmon Foundation and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to install a temporary fish fence in August 2016, which intercepts migrating fish just upstream of the river mouth. Prior to installation, many fish were injuring themselves as they attempted to pass the rockfall. Once the temporary fence was installed it allowed the returning fish to be captured, followed by translocation of the fish above the rockfall using tanker trucks. This translocation enabled the fish to reach the 14km of available spawning habitat upstream, while also providing broodstock for the hatchery. In addition to this, recreational and traditional fishing practices were suspended in the river until further notice.

Support from local community volunteers, both the Squamish and Tseil-Waututh Nations, and government agencies has been instrumental in the success of the translocation efforts. In 2016, a total of 485 fish were trapped following installation in August until the first week of October (when water levels became too high to work in the river, with 337 moved upstream of the rockfall to spawn naturally, while the remainder were taken to the hatchery for broodstock. This process was repeated in 2017, with a total of 1,874 fish successfully moved upstream to spawn naturally in the river, and a further 851 taken to the hatchery.

Being a volunteer helping to deliver on the translocation programme, included not only netting and capture of the returning fish, but also assisting with their movement into the upper river and to the hatchery. The considerable local volunteer support included people living in proximity to the Seymour River, to multiple groups from schools and tertiary institutions in Greater Vancouver, along with First Nations representatives and local government personnel. It was such a team effort and was heartening to see the satisfied smiles on the volunteers faces after a long day on the water moving these fish to the upper river. I haven’t felt the same satisfaction after a day’s work for a long time, and it was in part because of the team work undertaken by people from a range of backgrounds and technical experiences.

The translocation efforts were underway again in August 2018, while further rock breaking works in the channel to clear a path for the migrating fish into the future began in Spring 2018. Both activities will continue into the Fall until river flows prevent instream work activities. Additional adult translocations are also proposed for habitat upstream of the Seymour Falls dam to allow for spawning within the upper watershed that is currently restricted by the dam. Monitoring of the emerging fry and their passage through the rockfall will also be undertaken, to confirm the effectiveness of the rock clearing program and effectiveness of the translocation efforts.

Just three years after a natural event that blocked the river, a significant amount of work has been undertaken by the local community and stakeholders to clear a path for the returning salmon. It’s going to take another two years before the mitigation program is complete; however, the signs thus far are positive for the sustainability of these annual runs within the Seymour River. So, although the rockslide was a significant natural event, sometimes it takes an impact such as this to bring together a community that works toward a common goal and bring awareness of how fragile our natural systems can be to change. Without these actions by the local community, the migrating runs in this river would have been left as remnant or unviable in the future.

Strong connections between people and their environment is important in our modern world and re-connecting with our wild places is important for one’s soul. The benefits perhaps are through the calming effect just being out there, or through the energy expended and the feel-good hormones gained while we pursue our recreational activities. Providing a helping hand to the flora and fauna in their time of need benefits the watershed, while also providing a sense of personal achievement and the opportunity to reconnect with others in the community. After experiencing the efforts undertaken by all involved in the Seymour River Rockslide Mitigation Project, I’m reminded of a proverb from my home town that demonstrates the strong connection of the people to their environment: “E rere kau mai te awa nui nei Mai i te kāhui maunga ki Tangaroa. Ko au te awa. Ko te awa ko au " (The river flows from the mountains to the sea, I am the river, the river is me). In early 2017 my home river, the Whanganui, was recognized as a living entity and granted full human rights, meaning it must to be treated as a living entity. Perhaps over time more communities will afford such rights to their home rivers to help reduce the effects that we’re having on these habitats; or provide the necessary support when mother nature throws in the odd curveball.

about the author

Reece Fowler is a freshwater ecologist originally from the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island.  He currently lives with his daughter in North Vancouver, British Columbia. Follow him on Instagram.