Pacific Northwest
Aerial photos from the mid-1990s and 2009 illustrating the restoration of the Baikie Island Reserve. Photos courtesy of Jim Van Tine and the City of Campbell River

CAN - Campbell River estuary is a restoration showcase to save salmon habitat from climate change

Jim Van Tine points out a grassy marsh bench sloping into a tranquil pond populated by ducks and ringed by a mix of salmonberry shrubs and alder and cottonwood trees at the heart of the Campbell River estuary.

The site — Mill Pond in the Baikie Island Reserve — was an industrial wasteland little more than 20 years ago, stuffed full of log booms and surrounded by timber yards, Van Tine said.

“It was completely sterile,” said Van Tine, one of the founding architects of the estuary’s revitalization plan that has transformed the area over the last couple of decades.

Sensitive riparian habitat — the zone of vegetation along wetlands, streams and rivers so vital to fish and wildlife — were either buried or dredged to meet the needs of lumber mills or other industries that dominated the estuary for most of the 20th century.

Small channels were excavated into large sloughs so that huge log booms could be pushed up sensitive waterways to be closer to mills or stored in the purpose-built pond.

Tonnes of rock and gravel were dumped on wetlands to create work sites and lumber yards, said the retired hatchery manager for Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

“They drove machines right into the water, where they boomed the logs, took them out [and] put them back,” he said.

“We had a fisheries scientist here and we looked through the area and we couldn't find one remnant of what might make food for fish.”

Little more than 20 years ago, the Campbell River estuary was an industrial wasteland. Its restoration and transformation illustrate what can be achieved as governments and conservation groups undertake a massive push to save critical ecosystems.

But a downturn in the forestry sector and the resulting bankruptcy of the mill created an opportunity for the Vancouver Island city known as the Salmon Capital of the World to reclaim the prime fish habitat.

In 1999, the city teamed up with the Nature Conservancy Canada and the Tula Foundation to purchase Baikie Island and begin an ongoing remediation effort that has become a showcase for estuary restoration.

After an extensive survey and planning process, much of it facilitated by Van Tine working as the project’s lead, crews began the long process of ripping up concrete and uncovering a century’s worth of gravel, rock and wood debris.

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More than 38,000 cubic metres of fill was shifted or trucked in the first phase to rebuild and plant the shoreline and make shallower waterways and back channels to create habitat for all five species of salmon and steelhead and cutthroat trout that use the estuary at various points in their life cycles.

Subsequent land purchases and years of work with extensive community support followed before the nature preserve was officially opened in 2012.

Transforming the estuary meant tackling one project at a time, grunt work involving a lot of digging and planting, and the stamina to withstand innumerable bureaucratic obstacles, Van Tine said.

“It took three years to plan one project and less than three months to do,” he said.

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