Pacific Northwest
A pink salmon climbs a fish ladder in a spawning channel Tsleil-Waututh Nation just restored this summer. The cool groundwater stream became a refuge for a few thousand of salmon as water levels in the Indian River dropped. Photo: Jennifer Gauthier / The Narwhal

Canada - Restoring the flow: Tsleil-Waututh’s race to save salmon habitat in drought stricken southwest B.C.

When tens of thousands of pink salmon became stranded in the Indian River during September’s unrelenting drought, the nation raced into action, continuing their work to rehabilitate culturally significant spawning streams crippled under the twin pressures of climate change and industrial development

This story is part of Nourish, a series about how First Nations are fuelling their people with sustainably harvested, healthy and culturally safe foods amid a changing climate

Tens of thousands of pink salmon were desperate for a way through a gravel bar as water levels in xʔəl̓ilwətaʔɬ, the Indian River, dropped to dangerous lows last week. They were stranded and quickly running out of oxygen.

“They’re suffocating,” Graham Nicholas, a senior environmental specialist with səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh Nation) told The Narwhal last week. “There’s too many fish in too little water.”

Rivers across B.C. are showing the strain of a long, hot, dry summer and what the provincial government is referring to as a historic drought. Water levels are low, temperatures are high and in some areas there’s very little rain in the forecast. Twenty-one of B.C.’s thirty-four water basins are locked in a level five drought, the most extreme category of drought. For the millions of salmon, making the arduous journey upriver to spawn, conditions are dire.

In xʔəl̓ilwətaʔɬ, about 5,000 fish were dying a day at the worst of it, says Charlie George, a natural resource technician and Tsleil-Waututh Nation member. And, as their bodies decayed they took up more of the already limited supply of oxygen.

“We knew it could get really bad really fast if we didn’t do anything,” Charlie says.

As Tsleil-Waututh Nation worked to clear a path through the blockage, a few thousand salmon found refuge in a small channel the nation restored just this summer as part of a broader effort to rehabilitate a watershed degraded by historic logging. At the height of a crisis, this small restoration project offered a glimmer of hope.

Across B.C., industrial logging, mining and other development has degraded salmon habitat, making already struggling populations more vulnerable to the impacts of heat waves, drought and torrential rains. As climate change drives these extreme weather events, the work communities are doing to restore damaged ecosystems is more important than ever.

xʔəl̓ilwətaʔɬ hasn’t seen the same degree of impact as other parts of Tsleil-Waututh Nation territory, which stretches across much of the area known today as Metro Vancouver. There, heavy urban and industrial development mean Tsleil-Waututh people can’t regularly harvest clams from Burrard Inlet, or hunt duck and deer on lands that are now covered in steel and concrete.

In that context the Indian River watershed is vital to Tsleil-Waututh Nation’s ability to practice its traditional ways, says Michelle George, cultural technical specialist with the nation’s Treaty, Lands and Resources Department.

“My family would go up every season and set up camp and do their fishing, harvesting and preservation practices,” she says. “The rivers were so abundant.”

But “forestry has heavily impacted the valley,” she says. “For the last couple of decades, we haven’t been practicing at all.”

By restoring salmon habitat, the nation hopes Tsleil-Waututh people will be able to harvest food from the river once again.

Old logging roads threaten salmon habitat Tsleil-Waututh Nation is working to restore

It’s just after 6 a.m. on Aug. 10, and the sun is still hiding behind the mountains, as Charlie steers the boat away from the dock at the Deep Cove marina.

We’re headed up the north arm of Burrard Inlet — səl̓ilw̓ət as it’s known in the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ language — to the mouth of the Indian River. The pink salmon run is well underway, with hundreds of thousands of salmon returning from two years in the ocean to the river where their lives began.

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