Extreme drought on Vancouver Island prompts fishing ban

A virtually non-existent snow pack, lack of rain taking its toll on Island rivers

Vancouver Island has now been rated to be in extreme drought. | BC government

A virtually non-existent snowpack and drought are taking a heavy toll on fish, hydro power and businesses that depend on water on Vancouver Island.

Conservationists and at least one Vancouver Island First Nation have been calling for a ban on fishing on Vancouver Island to protect fish stocks hammered by dramatically low river levels and temperatures that could prove fatal to juvenile trout and steelhead.

On Friday, July 3, the B.C. government responded with a ban on freshwater fishing on the lower half of Vancouver Island.

The government also bumped up the drought rating for Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands from level three to level four –the highest level there is.

At that level, water shortages are expected and could result in short-term suspensions of water licences and severe water restrictions.

Read: Water worries rising for businesses in B.C.

Meanwhile, in an effort to save as much water as it can for fish, on June 16, BC Hydro shut down its turbines at its hydroelectric dam on the Puntledge River, and will also be running its John Hart generating station on Campbell River at 20-25% capacity.

The Coast Mountains at least had some snow this past winter. Vancouver Island had virtually no snow pack this year to recharge lakes and rivers.

Prolonged heat and lack of rain have reduced rivers and streams to levels not normally seen until August. Most rivers on Vancouver Island are reported to be at minimum or below minimum flow levels.

“I can tell you, from my 25 years of fishing out here, I can honestly say I have not stood out and seen it this low before,” said Kent O’Neill, general manager for The Lodge at Gold River. “It’s pretty much at an all-time low and it’s at a level you might expect to see in the middle of August.”

O’Neill said sockeye have been stranded at the mouth of the Gold River since May and doubts they will make it up the river to spawn.

Sockeye are sensitive to temperatures and have been known to stall at the mouths of rivers if river levels are too low and temperatures too high. They become vulnerable to predators and use up all their energy stores before they can make it up the river to spawn.

“They normally start migrating in May and June, but they haven’t been able to because there’s literally not enough water for them to swim up to the lake,” O’Neill said.

On June 29, in response to the concerns about low river levels and high temperatures, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans banned all recreational fishing for salmon on the Sproat, Stamp and Somass rivers.

To protect vulnerable steelhead, trout and salmon, the Cowichan Tribes implemented a voluntary ban on its own members on the Cowichan River two weeks ago, and called on the provincial government to follow suit.

“We support the Cowichan tribes fully,” said Ted Brookman, Inland Fisheries chairman for the BC Wildlife Federation. “Most knowledgeable people have already quit (fishing). There’s a guide on the Cowichan River, he quit guiding two weeks ago.”

“We have requested the provincial fisheries people to close the river to all sport fishing,” said Paul Rickard, past co-chairman of the BC Wildlife Federation’s Cowichan River Stewardship Rountable.

“We want to protect the chinook but we also want to protect the existing trout in the river because it’s now at very high temperatures. The river is at August temperatures now (July 3)."

Steelhead and salmon smolts spend a year in fresh water. They can become stressed and die when low river levels result in higher temperatures and low amounts of oxygen.

But low river levels and high temperatures can also pose a serious problem for adult salmon when they start returning in the summer and the fall.

The fish ban implemented July 3 applies to rivers from Bamfield south to Victoria on the west coast, and Campbell River south on the east coast. The only exceptions are the Qualicum and Quinsam rivers, which are still open to fishing.

Catalyst Paper Corp. (TSX:CYT), which owns the Crofton pulp mill, owns a weir at the mouth of Cowichan Lake, and the company has been reducing flows into the river in order to store water in the lake.

There have been rumours that the Crofton mill might have to shut down, due to a water shortage. Robert Belanger, vice-president and general manager, Crofton Division, for Catalyst Paper, said the company thinks it can avoid that.

The company plans to cut water flows into the Cowichan River even further from the current 5.5 cubic metres to 4.5 cubic metres per second.

“If we continue at the current 5.5 cubic metres per second, we will run to zero storage on September 16,” Belanger said.

“If we can get that flow moved down to 4.5 cubic metres per second, we add 18 days of storage. When the rains come in mid-September, end of September early October, that 18 days really buys us a lot of time.”

The mill also plans to reduce its water use by 10%. For example, it plans to use more seawater for cooling.

“In 57 years, since we built the mill, this (a shutdown) has never occurred,” Belanger said. “We’ve never shut down for a lack of water.”

Even if Vancouver Island gets a deluge, Rickard said the weir on Cowchan Lake is not high enough to take advantage of the lake’s capacity to store water.

Following droughts in 1999 and 2003, the Cowichan Stewardship Roundtable made several recommendations to mitigate future droughts in 2007.

A watershed management plan was drafted “which the government has failed to enact,” Brookman said.

“We spent two and half years building the plan and they won’t enact the plan. They’re implementing it in dribs and drabs but they’re never giving it the teeth.”

The main thing that needs to be done is raise the weir on Cowichan Lake, Brookman said – a project estimated to be in the $3-10-million range.

It has also been proposed that a pump system be installed that would pipe cold water from deeper levels of the lake into the river to bring temperatures down during droughts.

If the round table’s recommendations had been implemented, the problems currently affecting the Cowichan River could have been mitigated somewhat.

“The government has been very responsive to the need to conserve what water we have,” Rickard said. “The government is dead silent on how to increase storage and increase the ability to maintain higher flows.”