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‘A lot of salmon died’: Ahousaht Guardians look to watershed restoration amid B.C.’s dangerously dry summer | The Narwhal

This story is part of When in Drought, a series about threats to B.C.’s imperilled freshwater systems and the communities working to implement solutions.

On a hot July afternoon Ahousaht Guardian Byron Charlie walked along the Bedwell River on the west coast of Vancouver Island. He was part of a restoration team there to rebuild a side channel of the river that had almost completely dried up.

Charlie said as they worked, the group came across small, calm pools of water — which usually act as cool refuges for fish — that were dangerously warm and low. They were so shallow, Charlie said, they weren’t much beyond “puddles.”

One of these small pools — Charlie estimates it was about six feet long and two inches deep — was teeming with tiny salmon. Knowing there was no end in sight to the summer heat and certainly no rain in the forecast, the team scooped up about 400 juvenile coho and transferred them to another part of the river. 

Looking around, they noticed another pool filled with fish and agreed to return the next day to continue the rescue operation. 

“If we didn’t do it that day, all those fish would have been gone,” Charlie told The Narwhal during an outdoor interview at a Tofino beach, describing how some of the small pools of water had completely dried up over night. “They would have been trapped there.”

Byron Charlie, an Ahousaht First Nation Guardian, radios the crew from Central Westcoast Forest Society after arriving in Bedwell Sound, in Clayoquot Sound, near Tofino. “When I was younger, my grandfather always said, ‘We’re salt water people — from the water,’ ” Charlie said. Photo: Melissa Renwick / The Narwhal

They returned to save another 600 juvenile coho from the second pool. Over the course of their project, they saved 1,600 fish, mostly coho. But not all the young salmon were so lucky, said Jessica Hutchinson, executive director of the Central Westcoast Forest Society, who was working with Charlie that day.

“We unfortunately came across a number of pools that we didn’t make it to in time,” she told The Narwhal in an interview. “A lot of salmon died.”

Hutchinson fears this summer, marked as it was by heat, fire and drought, is “an indicator of what’s to come” as climate change intensifies. At the time of Charlie and Hutchison’s baby salmon rescue mission, Western Vancouver Island was at level three drought, according to the British Columbia Drought Information Portal, which means adverse impacts to fish and ecosystems are “possible.” In August, those adverse impacts became “almost certain” as the region moved into drought level five. Despite cooler weather and some showers, the island remains locked in extreme drought conditions and, as waterways remain dry and unseasonably warm, many fish are struggling to survive.

To Hutchinson, the prolonged drought emphasizes the urgency of the Bedwell River restoration project, on which the Central Westcoast Forest Society is partnering with the Ahousaht First Nation.

“It was a terrible year for fish,” she said. “It’s good for us to see how fragile these salmon populations are and how close they are to the brink of extinction, and the importance of doing this work now before it’s too late.”

‘A lot of salmon died’: Ahousaht Guardians look to watershed restoration amid B.C.’s dangerously dry summer | The Narwhal
Byron Charlie carries a bucket of around 15 rescued juvenile salmon to release into the Bedwell River, within the Clayoquot Sound, near Tofino, on July 30, 2021. Photo: Melissa Renwick / The Narwhal
‘A lot of salmon died’: Ahousaht Guardians look to watershed restoration amid B.C.’s dangerously dry summer | The Narwhal
Byron Charlie released juvenile salmon into the Bedwell River, within the Clayoquot Sound, near Tofino, on July 30, 2021. Photo: Melissa Renwick / The Narwhal

Recovering a river buried by destructive logging practices

The drought exacerbated dry conditions in the Bedwell River, but the tributary that the restoration team focused their efforts on had already been mostly buried by erosion, caused by destructive logging practices throughout the 20th century. 

“We’re seeing a lot of creeks go dry when a watershed is logged,” Hutchinson said, which is why she feels restoration “is key” to save salmon. 

Cutting down trees and building logging roads contributes to and can accelerate erosion, increasing the amount of gravel and debris that enters a river during rainfall. While logging companies are now required to leave buffers of trees along rivers, that wasn’t required when Bedwell Sound was logged. 

“Without the extensive root systems that hold the integrity of the river together, the river really unravels,” Hutchinson said. A disrupted river can widen and become more shallow, meaning it will dry up more easily in hot and dry weather, which further compounds the impacts of erosion.

The shallower the water, the more intensely rain events can impact spawning beds, Mandala Smulders, Central Westcoast Forest Society’s director of operations, said.

“Tiny little fish just get washed out into the estuary and they’re not ready for all that predation, she said. Without pools and side-channels, “there’s nowhere for them to take refuge … it’s basically just like a highway, and they get washed out to sea when they’re born.”

“Water that used to be at the surface is now buried meters and meters below. We see these pools dry up and these fish die,” Hutchinson said.

That’s what brought the restoration team to Bedwell River this past August: to dig out side channels of the river, about six feet underground, to hit groundwater to get the tributary running again.

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